Tag Archives: things writers need

On the Life and Death of my Pen


Tools.

Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a

Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)

The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?

I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.

So. Digital tools. Right?

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Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?

Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.

Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.

So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.

Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)

And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.

So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)


And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.

It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.

And then I broke it.

I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.

I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.

Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.

And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).

So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.

Neandarthalic.

But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.

And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?

Because I got distracted, that’s why.

I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)

Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.

And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.

(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)

All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.

(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)

I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.

To stay focused on what matters.


Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling


Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:

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(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)


Winnie the Pooh is a Masters’ Level Writing Class


I’m sitting here watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my kid. You know, the one from the 70s that’s less a movie and more a bunch of cartoon shorts slapped together with honey-flavored caulking.

Now, there’s a lovely little book that came out some time ago called The Tao of Pooh, which takes the silly old bear and infuses him with all sorts of Zen mysticism. (Actually, the mysticism was in him all along, we just didn’t always realize it.) And that book has a companion called The Te of Piglet. Fantastic reads that you can pick up and put down as often as you’d like; the kind of books that grow with you. The kind of books that mean something entirely different to your full-of-piss-and-vinegar twenty-something self and your tired-as-fargo-from-wrangling-toddlers-all-weekend thirty-something self.

But I realized, watching the cartoons just now, just this instant, that you don’t need a zennified book to appreciate the dubious wisdom of Pooh. The beauty is in the simplicity. And as a writer, the simplicity resonates on several levels.

Let’s take the opening short.

We meet Pooh in his house, and Pooh wants some damn honey. Why? Because he’s a stuffed bear, and fargo your reasoning; his honey stores in the house are empty, so he’s got to go get some more. But he doesn’t have a grocery store with a plastic bear full of honey to overpay for; he’s got to go straight to the source. Who makes honey? Bees do, so Pooh goes after the bees.

He climbs a tree and tries to just straight-up jack some honey, but the bees aren’t playing that, and the twiggy brances at the top of the tree can’t support his honey-eating behind, so he falls all the way back down. Is Pooh discouraged? Not for a minute. Along comes his pal, Christopher Robin, with a balloon of all things, and Pooh says, hey CR, let me snag that balloon so that I can use it to get some honey. CR is no fool, and he asks the question that we’re all asking, watching this: how are you going to get honey with a balloon?

Don’t be silly, says the bear, I’m going to use the balloon to float up there. The bees will think I’m a raincloud, and they’ll let me have the honey. Now, this is patently idiotic, and being a good friend, CR points this out to him — you don’t look like a raincloud.

Right, says Pooh, let me roll around in some mud so I’m all dark like a thundercloud. So he rolls around in the mud for a minute, gets good and disgusting, then floats up to the treetops. This works until the bees realize that the bear is ganking their honey again, so they attack him and he ends up falling all the way down again.

Bees aren’t parting with their honey, he realizes, and goes off to his buddy Rabbit’s house, where he just asks for some honey without any niceties or prelude. And Rabbit gives it to him. Gives him so much, in fact, that Pooh can’t even squeeze his honey-stuffed stuffing out through the door anymore, and he has to go on a two-week diet before he can even go home again.

Let me not spoil the whole program for you if you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say, the shenanigans continue. All are ridiculous and wholesome, and all are approached with the same oh-well-I-guess-if-that’s-the-way-it-is-we’ll-just-have-to-change-the-way-we-think attitude.

So why is this relevant to the writer?

Pooh wants honey and he sets himself to the task with the single-mindedness of a cat stalking a crippled lizard.

He tries the direct route. When that doesn’t work, he doesn’t just think outside the box, he turns the box inside-out. When that doesn’t work, he dispenses with the pleasantries, doesn’t hem and haw his way around it, he just goes to somebody who can help and gets some damn help.

In short, once he decides he wants it, there is no force on earth that is going to stop him.

So it must be with the writer.

Sometimes the direct route is all it takes to get us there, but more often, the direct route is a boring and ineffectual route. We have to get outside the box. Sometimes that means redesigning the box, burning it, designing it again, throwing it down a flight of stairs, and building another box from the shattered pieces, then stepping into the box just for the purpose of stepping back out of it. And sometimes, we just need a little help.

So.

Let’s get some honey.


Sideways Short Fiction


I’ve written a bit about the workshop I’m undertaking over the past several weeks, though I haven’t said anything about the works. (I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with these stories, so, y’know, sharing about them seems premature.)

But I’m on to the final “lesson” — writing the endings — and the workshop has offered some advice that really turns everything I thought I knew about narrative writing on its head.

It’s so different and powerful, I feel like I might actually do better writing in the future literally standing on my head. Because I feel like I’ve been doing this stuff wrong all along. Well… not wrong, per se. But maybe as if I’ve been driving a car around for hours, and I didn’t realize that the sun shield with the big dumb sunglasses painted on it was covering the windshield.

(Don’t pretend you don’t remember those things.)

I’ll shill for it again since I’m enjoying it so much — the program in question is Holly D. Lisle’s free fiction workshop at How To Think Sideways, and again, if you write a lot of short fiction like I do, it’s absolutely worth your time to check it out.

Anyway, the short fiction projects in progress should be wrapped in a week or two, and then it’ll be back to the Capital-P Projects — whether 2nd editing my first novel or 1st editing my second — and maybe finding some stability in my writing routine again.

Or not. God knows with Christmas rolling around, any sort of routine tends to go out the window.


Things Writers Need — The Hemingwrite


I’ve just seen a thing.

I don’t know what to make of it.  I’m very much of two minds.

I’ve had my say about typewriters before.  I think they’re cute and quaint and entirely impractical for any writer to be using to do any real writing in the — and I say this with no irony whatsoever, except for the implicit  — modern era.  I stand by that wholeheartedly.  When you consider the gamut of writing devices, a machine that uses paper, has no means to erase or edit on the fly, and that cannot multitask in any way, shape, or form, is simply an inferior alternative to any device which can, you know, backspace, or fit in your pocket, or at least your carry-on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a certain romantic nostalgia about typewriters.  The sounds they make as you click away at their keys are soothing and hypnotic — much more so than the impersonal muffled thumps that issue from the plastic construction of a laptop or a multi-function bluetooth keyboard.  And, you know, the greats wrote on typewriters, or something like that.  So there’s hero emulation thrown in there to boot.  I see the draw, even if it doesn’t measure up to even the flimsiest of word processors.

But then tonight, I see this.  The Hemingwrite.

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It’s a word processor stuffed into the body of a typewriter analog.  It syncs wirelessly and automatically with backup services like google docs and Evernote (which I love).  It has weeks and weeks of battery life.  It’s about the size of a very large book, or a very small chessboard.  It’s adorable.  And all it lets you do is write.

It looks like much of what I love about WriteMonkey (my drafting software of choice) literally crammed into a box that lets you write without the distractions of the wily internet and whatever apps you have chiming and sucking your life away.  And my Id-Writer stops slavering, looks out through the bars of his cage toward this unassuming little box, and ponders.

I can’t decide if I love or hate this idea.

The pendulum swings in favor of this thing initially.  It’s undoubtedly brilliant.  There are, I have no doubt, scads of writers and would-be writers, their heads clouded with that romantic image of Hemingway bent over a buzzing machine, the keys clattering into the night, who will happily throw money at the manufacturers of this thing just for the chance to ape the greats while still maintaining the creature comforts of cloud backups and wireless syncing.  The Hemingwrite website, which has only been up for a few months, overtly states that the creators are overwhelmed by the response already, and they’re not even past the prototyping phases yet.  This thing is going to sell like crazy to people wanting one for themselves, let alone as gifts for the writerly types out there.

But is it necessary?  I mean, my laptop automatically backs up my work as I write and is just as portable as this little gadget.  It also allows me to browse the web, watch movies, play games, and you know, anything else you can do with a fully-powered computer.  For that matter, it allows me — with the use of the proper programs — to have the same uninterrupted, distraction-free writing experience that the Hemingwrite seeks to provide, minus of course the vaguely romantic notion of typing on a typewriter that’s not really a typewriter.

But there’s something to that, isn’t there?  The feel of creating on something that’s not a do-it-all magic box.  They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have (though that’s perhaps a bad idea if you’re a businessman who wants to be an ice fisher), and doesn’t this gizmo allow you to advertise to the world that “I AM A WRITER” in a way that no simple laptop can?  And isn’t writing all about being in the proper mindset to create?  By extension, then, if this tool helps you, in any small way, to get a little bit closer to the zone, isn’t it worth the trouble?

And then my pendulum swings the other way again, because don’t I — don’t we, as Americans (make no mistake, this is for Americans, much as I hate the “we as fill-in-the-blank” construction) — have enough stuff already?  Part of the romance of writing (and I’m overusing the word “romance” in this little entry, I now realize, but fargo it, it cuts both ways) is the simplicity of it.  From the blank screen, the blank page, the flashing cursor on the screen, I craft worlds and people and plots and MacGuffins and really wild things.  If I’m a writer, I already have a computer or laptop to help me do those things.  Do I need another thing on my desk to help me do the same things?  I’m not sure I do.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.  I have enough of a headache working on two different computers in two different settings; I can only imagine the frustration of getting all keyed-in and in love with this little machine and then having to haul it back and forth from home to work.  And then forgetting it and having to work on my laptop anyway.  Or finding room for it on my already cluttered desks.  And justifying to myself and my wife the existence of this thing which doesn’t really do anything for me that the stuff I already had isn’t capable of doing.

Then again, it looks like they’ll offer it in Georgia Bulldog Red.

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I think it’s a fascinating little thing.  I’m sure it will help writers if only in a Placebo Effect, I’m-becoming-a-better-writer-because-I-feel-like-a-writer kind of way.  But the more I think about it, the more it feels like too much novelty, not enough practicality.  I think I’d love to test-drive one, but I definitely can’t see buying one for myself, unless, when they finally get around to selling these things, the price tag ends up in the realm of the ridiculously low.  Based on the hype around this thing, though, I’d be shocked if it goes for less than $80, and I even think that might be optimistic on my part.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh on the little Hemingwrite, which for all intents and purposes hasn’t even been born yet?


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