The Tools of My So-Called Trade

So, you imagine that all a writer needs to get the job done is some ideas, a wordprocessing package and a keyboard, right?  Wrong.  Writers are fragile, delicate creatures who require far more in the way of equipment to armour themselves for the daily, soul-destroying struggle with the blank page.  Or just to distract themselves from it. 

They are also idiosyncratic folk, so each finds his or her own array of tools with which to fight the good fight.  Here are four of mine:

Coffee/Tea.  Because the delivery of caffeine to the appropriate receptors in the author’s brain is a serious business, not to be taken lightly.  Particularly in the day’s early stages when, without the lubrication of coffee, my chances of coming up with a pleasing turn of phrase are about the same as my chance of pushing an orange through a flute.

I’m a recent convert to the habit of grinding my own coffee beans.  Not just because it tastes better (which I think it does, on balance – currently grinding my way through a bag of Kenya AA, for those who know or care about such things) but because (a) it makes the whole coffee-making process that little bit more exciting – look, you have to take your excitement where you can get it when you’re a desk jockey, okay? – and (b) it takes longer.  That point (b) is important, as many of a writer’s tools are specifically intended to keep him or her away from the desk.  The desk, and the monitor residing thereupon with the remorselessly blinking cursor demanding that you type something sensible … you need to get away from that stuff or you’d go mad.

Tea is my drug of choice for the remainder of the day, once baseline mental function has been established.  Same principles apply.  Teabags are all well and good – jolly clever invention in fact, kudos to whoever dreamed them up – but you can’t beat a properly brewed little pot of loose leaf for depth of flavour and depth of excuse to be somewhere other than in front of the computer screen for a while.

Fountain pen. I am the proud owner of a really quite nice fountain pen.  It is my preferred weapon when confronted with a big pile of first draft pages.  As you ponder the editorial task before you, you know you are about to be immersed in a world of error, inaccuracy, incompetence and horrible crimes against the wordsmith’s craft.  And all of it will inescapably be your fault.  The mental anguish is greatly reduced (though never entirely eliminated) by the comforting ritual of filling up a fountain pen, then feeling its nib glide effortlessly over the page, laying down thick, smooth lines of corrective ink.

Writing with a fountain pen is so much more civilized than scratching away with some ball-point that cost less to buy than a stamp.  It invites thought, and care, and attention.  And, of course, it invites dirty great smudges all over your precious manuscript if you don’t give the pages a moment or two to dry before stacking them up again.  A warning, though: fountain pens should only ever hold blue or black ink.  I cannot emphasize too strongly the fact that it is not cool to demean something as noble as a fountain pen with red or – even worse – green ink.  Doing so will almost certainly make you a bad writer all on its own.

Mp3 Player.  Once upon a time, when I were but a young lad with a brain capable of handling multiple sensory inputs without loss of concentration, I used to listen to music while writing.  Classical mostly, with bits of Van Morrison thrown in.  No longer.  Turns out my concentration ain’t up to it any more.  Also once upon a time, I seemed to have almost open-ended amounts of time available for reading.  Also: no longer.  Enter the mp3 player, because I do still have some time available for listening, even if I can’t do it while writing any more.

But it’s not music I’m plugged into these days, it’s the spoken word.  Podcasts of all kinds, but most notably in this context short sf/f fiction, history and drama.  Inspiration, in other words; sometimes even research.  And all of it done while otherwise engaged in all the varied displacement activities writers traditionally use to distance themselves from the labour of actually being a writer: mowing the lawn, watering the houseplants, reorganising all those unread books cluttering up the shelves.  Fill your ears with stuff that just might be relevant in some notional way to the job of writing and your pangs of guilt will recede.  Guaranteed.

Juggling balls. I can juggle three balls.  Go me.  It’s very easy, in truth, so long as you can tell the difference between your left hand and your right, which most writers can, as far as I can tell, though you do wonder about some of them sometimes.

The balls in question reside upon the bookshelf behind my chair, always within easy reach.  For here’s the thing: there is nothing, and I do mean nothing, more soothing of the troubled, doubting mind than juggling.  It requires just enough concentration to get yourself into the necessary zone, and then its insistent rhythm works a kind of dulling magic upon the brain, rendering it satisfyingly empty and quiet.  And all writers sometimes need an empty and quiet mind (and tend to only find themselves with one at those times when they specifically don’t need it, like when a deadline is imminent or when they’re supposed to be saying something sensible to an attentive audience of aspiring authors).

Stressed out over writer’s block?  Juggle!  Probably won’t help with the block thing, but it’ll stop you worrying about it for a little while.  Calm you down enough to go and make a nice pot of tea – and it is better to be calm when doing that, or burnage might ensue.  Then maybe you could take your mp3 player for a nice long walk.  Chances are, you’ll still have writer’s block when you get back, but at least you’ll have got some exercise.