Ben's Workshop: Wright Thompson, William Faulkner, and the Writer's Desk

We all know Ben loves to hear a good story and tell a good one, too. On this week's episode of Ben's Workshop, Ben worked with a piece of Cedarwood cut down from the property of Roanoke in Oxford, Mississippi, the home of Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Poet Laureate— William Faulkner. Talk about a good story!

Ben said, "I have been waiting for a project that was worthy of the provenance of this piece of wood. Today, another writer is coming to town, another Mississippi son, and my good friend, Wright Thompson."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN. He's written for ESPN 30 for 30 series, and his books The Cost of These Dreams and Pappyland became New York Times bestsellers. Most have read his stories on Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Leo Messi, but most don't know that Ben has cried reading all of them. 

Ben and Wright are on a mission to build a writing desk from Faulkner's cedar and then donate it to the creative writing department at Ole Miss, their Alma Mater.

Ben said, "Just think of the stories this piece of wood could tell and think of the all the stories that will be written at this desk for years to come."

Wright and Ben got straight to work, but not without taking a moment to relish in the rareness of the build. Ben mentioned that being a southerner and sentimental go hand in hand. In Wright Thompson fashion, he said something wise and beautiful and almost made us cry in the first two minutes of the episode.

Wright said, "I'm a big believer that wood carries the life force in it. I have knives made from the barn on the farm where my dad grew up. I think Faulkner wrote about that most, which is the idea that there is this past that is slipping through your hands very quickly."

He continued, "If you drive around here [Laurel], the nostalgia is thick. So much of the ideas behind his work [Faulkner] live in the fact that we're taking something old and dead and making it new and alive. I write on a table made out of wood from an old house that collapsed in Clarksdale, where I'm from, and it's beautiful. I think that even when we leave where we're from, you want to carry pieces of it with you."

Ben and Wright begin their project by turning legs for the writing table. Using a lathe, they design the legs to pay homage to William Faulkner and every other writer's most dangerous tool, the pencil. 

Ben asked about Wright's journey of becoming a writer. Wright said, "I have the best job in the world. I've got to do some cool stuff. The Cricket World Cup in India comes to mind. If you would have asked me, a kid from Clarkesdale, Mississippi to draw up my dream scenario.. the places I would go and the people I would meet, I couldn't have made this up. I feel deeply, sincerely grateful."

It all began when Wright was assigned to the sports section in the college newspaper. As a sports fan, he was thrilled but never expected to be thrown into the throes the way he was. He said, "We got sent to go cover the Super Bowl, and I guess the NFL didn't know we were student paper. They just sent us these credentials, and we got to go to all these fancy parties, and we had to buy sport coats.

He continues, "Most people were geeking out about the athletes, but we were all geeking out about the sportswriters. I love writing about athletes because the psychological cost of doing this significant personal thing in public is tremendous."

Ben immediately got into his favorite questions about Lionel Messi and his interview with Michael Jordan. Wright laughingly answered, "Wait, who is that?"

He goes on to say, "It's Michael Jordan. The fact that he's Michael Jordan wears off pretty quickly, and he's just a guy who is sitting around telling jokes, smoking cigars. He has, as you can imagine, really good cigars. We watched basketball, and it was interesting because he had a sophisticated scouting report about LeBron James. He'd be watching and then shout He's going left!"

"It became immediately clear to me that this dude is sitting at home, mentally preparing for games that he won't ever play. He talked about how he spent his whole life turning himself into this weapon. Now all of those traits that he worked so hard to nurture, develop and protect, not only are they useless, but they are the things that are keeping him from enjoying any of this."

Ben went on to ask about Wright's two newest works, The Cost of These Dreams and Pappyland. Wright says, "The fact that you liked it [Pappyland] and don't drink is the reason I thought we might have something here. It's a bourbon book that's barely about bourbon. My wife makes fun of me and says it's Eat, Pray Love for dads."

When the woodworking was done, they admired their table, and Ben may have been tempted to keep it forever. They loaded it up and headed to Oxford to donate it to the Writing Center at the University of Mississippi.

When they arrived, Wright and Ben carried Faulkner's writing-table up to its new residence where two professors and two MFA students greeted them. The Writing Center allowed them the privilege to use the writing table first and write something meaningful about the history and its legacy.

Poem by Hussain Ahmed, MFA Student at the University of Mississippi

It was a special event for Ben, Wright, and all those in the room. Ben said, "From the moment this piece of wood came into my shop, I knew it needed to be a writing desk. Creating it with one of my all-time favorite writers and then giving it back to the University of Mississippi is such a full-circle moment. We have built some fascinating things in our shop, but this piece is a masterpiece. I'm proud of it."