Monday, September 15, 2008

The Writers' Tool Kit

An absolute pushover for gadgets, I fall upon mail order catalogs from any number of purveyors, whether the tempting kitchenware or sophisticate espresso makers of Dean & Delucca or Williams-Sonoma, whether the electronic inducements of Radio Shack or Circuit City, the high-priced exotica of Harrington, perhaps even the Hammecher-Schlemmer or, indeed, Russell's; so long as it is a tool or gadget, I want it, sometimes even as much as I want the knowledge and expertise to use these--these utensils. I have already had problems with the Mac Store, thus arranging for their notices to appear in my in box as junk mail.

Working editorially on a project about our early Homo sapiens forbears, the Cro-Magnon, I am particularly acute to how ingeniously they contrived tools for projects at hand such as hunting, fishing, curing hides, carrying the equivalent of a lighter for starting fires. It might be accurately said that some among the Cro-Magnon invented the needle by using a sharpened sliver of bone or antler to link hides by sewing them with tendon.

Everywhere I look, professions carry about the tools of their choice: artists carry charcoals or pastels or oils or watercolors; sculptors carry chisels, knives, saws; chefs carry knives.

I sometimes carry a MacBook or a CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style), but never my unabridged American Heritage; often my Ancora fountain pen or my Mark Twain Conklin, even from time to time a Moleskine notebook (graph grid, of course). My more favored tool is my curiosity, which surely gets me into more trouble than a terrorist-suspect at an air port. Curiosity--what if, and would would it be like? There is also the possibility of a book, which at the moment is Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin, but that can change. There is also the presence in the tool kit of enthusiasm, which is the fuel that keeps the writing and the curiosity going against the enormous inertia of distraction, the same kind of distraction that seizes the attention of a scent hound catching a whiff of--of an interesting scent.

What else should be in a writer's tool kit? What quality or element? Perhaps an ear for the music of words and ideas, perhaps an eye for a subterranean pattern or perhaps a lack of pattern. Perhaps a feel for a person, place, or thing? Perhaps a voice, cynical or not, optimistic or not. Perhaps a sense of humor, the ability to see myself at the root of all folly, made more foolish yet by my attempt to embody seriousness and decorum. Perhaps a Faulknerian belief that Mankind will prevail, this in the face of growing evidence that we as a species are on an endangered list.

Perhaps the most useful tool of all, the Swiss Army Knife of writers, the fact of having loved and perhaps won or perhaps lost, the fact of having given a damn, the fact of caring


Anonymous said...

Sometimes the strap on my bag breaks and all my tools spill out on the ground. Then I've got to spend time running around catching them before the wind takes of with the lighter ones. I've got to check to heavier ones aren't busted. I've got to get them to all fit back into the bag, and then I've got to remember where I was going with them in the first place and how to use them properly. I find most of these tools don't come with instructions--and if they did I probably wouldn't read them unless they came with stick figures.

Anonymous said...

Two indespensible tools for me: Detachment (for when life gets overwhelming) and Patience (I am definitely the Hare in the Hare and Tortoise tale).

Matt said...

As regards tools, I would quote (and thus pervert for the purposes of "good") Kevin Spacey's tyrannical studio producer from the film Swimming With Sharks: "Shut up, listen, and learn.".