What I learned about writing from cutting peat
To celebrate my recent birthday, my wife and I took a trip to Scotland. I’ve been eager to tour our property there for 17 years, and this was the perfect occasion.
We spent a day at the Laphroaig Distillery on their Water to Whisky Experience. It was delightful and delicious. A week later, on our flight home, I gazed out the window at the clouds below, and reflected on what I learned from my day on the distillery. I realized many similarities between their craft, and mine.
Style is better than strength. Cutting peat requires more finesse than brute strength. The handmade cutter has a polished oak handle with a soft smooth finish that reduces hand blisters. The thin wrought iron blade is brick-width and designed to slice through the peat effortlessly. It is grace, not muscle, that produces the perfect brick of peat. Use your words with intention to show your reader your ideas.
Work with purpose. Laphroaig’s men cut much of their peat manually, rather than by machine. This method takes more time, but it yields a looser brick. The looser peat will smolder in the kiln, not burn. Thereby releasing the earthy vapors that permeate and dry the malted barley laid out on the screen above the kiln. Before you write, define a clear purpose, and keep everything you write focused on that purpose.
Give not just receive. Another benefit of cutting peat by hand is to renew the soil. The men replace the thick top layer of sod after they remove peat below. So the land continues to grow and, in a few thousand years, will produce more peat for future generations of whisky lovers. Writing is synergistic – if you want something from your reader, what are you willing to give in return?
Look for substance. Peat is packed with organic energy, yet it’s light and porous. It’s often what you don’t include that adds substance to your writing. Omit needless words.
Try something new. During our lunch out on the peat bog, they served the national dish of Scotland. Haggis is a sort of minced meat made from sheep’s liver, heart, and lungs, mixed with mutton suet, oatmeal, onion, cayenne, and a few other mysterious seasonings, then boiled in a sheep stomach. My three bites offered an excellent nutty texture and delicious savory flavor. If you’re stuck trying to communicate your ideas, take a risk, and go in a different direction. You will likely discover new ways to spice up that welcome letter in the conference program.
Know when to stop. The barley is soaked in water just to the point the grains begin to germinate. This modifies the starch into sugar. The distillerymen know exactly when to transfer the barley to the kiln to dry above smoldering peat. If they let the barley soak too long, the grain will transform into a sprout. While I encourage you to edit and revise your work, be willing to stop when it’s perfect enough.
Let it rest. After the malted barley brew is distilled to a clear spirit, the distillery lets it rest for 10 years or more in oak barrels stacked in an old barn 15 meters from the sea. The charred oak cask lends the spirit’s earthy flavor and honey hue, while the sea air slowly permeates the barrel over the years to add subtle salty iodine notes to the whisky. Give yourself a break after you write the first draft of your next proposal. Get a cup of coffee, go to lunch, even leave it until the next morning. You’ll view what you wrote with a seasoned eye.
Appreciate your results. Sipping a dram of Laphroaig is a splendid moment. Recognize when your writing gets the results you want, and savor that. Then learn from what you did well.
Share with others. Our lunchtime dram was Laphroaig’s Cairdeas limited edition bottling. Cairdeas is pronounced a bit like car chase and means friendship in Gaelic. It was perfect to share with our new friends who spent the day on the distillery with us. In fact, we learned nearly as much from each other as we did from James, our guide. Before you send your document to your final reader, exchange your writing with colleagues. You’ll get new insights and ideas from often unexpected sources.