Friday, March 4, 2011

Implementation :: The Tools Are Not the Trade

Flashback Friday - This post first appeared 23 January 2010, revisiting a long-running discussion I've been having with myself on how ritualized my writing experience has become.  What if I had to give up coffee tomorrow?  The mind boggles. . .


Acknowledging that I'm at risk of painting with too broad a brush here I feel that I can say with assurance that on the whole, writers love rituals. Every writer's book and blog I've read talks about their ritual at some point, the ingrained habits that get them "into the zone". My writing certainly gains some sort of psychological homefield advantage when I'm writing in my "nest" or at a table in my favorite cafe.

I don't want to make it sound more metaphysical than it is, but there does seem to be some energy in those two places that agrees with me. At the very least, the effort seems greater if I write anywhere else. 

A lot is made of the implements that a writer uses and I'm no saint in this respect. I chortle periodically over some bit of trivia (like Wallace Stegner's typewriter) because it reinforces some portion of my own writing ritual. It's certainly easy to see how this can go from force of habit to becoming as superstitious about our rituals as any NHL Goalie, and slip from harmless habits into the realm of compulsive need. But I'm here to tell you that the tools are irrelevant. 

There's a tendency to get too precious about the creative act and obsess overmuch about the tools at the expense of the creation. Writer's blogs (like this one) abound with lengthy introspection on the mystique of writing, obsessing about the meditative stroke of the golden nib across a page or the percussive "ka-CHUNK" of the typewriter hammer striking the page. 

Ultimately, it's all baloney. At least insomuch as it's purely psychological, the writerly equivalent of Dumbo's feather. And I've found that as much as this psychological trick helps, it also it sets us up for writer's block. Ask yourself what happens when you lose the feather? Misplace your nice fountain pen or run out of ink for your funky old typewriter? Or (paying it back) if you can't get to your favorite writing spot? How do you keep writing on the road if your cafe table or easy chair or desk are a thousand miles away?

The only way to create and sustain a writing output is to make your writing a movable feast. Revel in your materials and your environment all you want, but always keep in mind that the pen isn't doing the writing, you are. Because in the end, writing is about sitting your butt in a chair in front of a computer, day after day and week after week, putting words on a page. 

No matter what we want to believe, it remains work, not a mystical act. I mentioned handing out Moleskine notebooks and pens at Christmas to those in my immediate vicinity who had mentioned to me the desire to write without actually writing anything. But with all due respect to my friends at Chronicle Books (the moleskine makers), a Mead spiral notebook would do just as well -- my current novel began on the back of a coffeestained napkin for heaven's sake. 

If the ideal tool or writerly setting frees your creativity in some fashion, go for it, but I'm here to tell you that the tools are irrelevant to the process and to get too wrapped up in them is to invite writers block at a crucial moment sometime in the future. 

Whether you're using a quill pen or a laptop, it's about getting from the first word to the last as effectively as possible. When the obsession with writing in a particularly "writerly" fashion becomes an obstacle to writing. Get used to writing in different places, at different times, with different instruments. The ideal time to write is when the ideas are fresh, with whatever comes to hand, whether it's a typewriter, a laptop or the pen you stole from the waitress.

But don't steal a pen from your waitress, it's not nice.

1 comment:

  1. Intellectually, I agree with you. We are the deciders of the words. But when I get in a groove, my superstitions explode. It's this table, this song, that breakfast I had, that easy-to-hold pen. Doesn't matter, once I fixate on some mini-muse, I insist on having it until I prove myself wrong in its absence, and write anyway. I know it's a lot of ridiculousness, but this one thing is true: if I have a pen and notepad in easy access, I need never lose a story or character idea. So for that reason I try to keep them within reach.
    Great post!


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).