You feed in kernels, salt, and oil, and in a few minutes it begins overflowing with savory buttery goodness. Golden fluffs of transcendent flavor.
When I worked at the movie theater, we’d make bonus batches — a batch with double the salt and oil. Absolute heaven. Probably shaved a few weeks off our lives with every bucket, but we were seventeen, what did we care?
Anyway, I figure a writer’s brain is like that. The hopper spins round and round churning out the ideas at a ridiculous rate, the fluffy poofed tidbits spilling out in a cascade. Except instead of the lovely glass enclosure, the writer’s brain is a popcorn popper spinning over a great black void that swallows up all the sun-kissed salty bits. (1. I’m really hungry and would eat a whole bucket of popcorn with great vengeance right now. 2. Sun-kissed salty bits sounds dirty, upon further review.)
Most of those ideas go right down the memory hole.
Doing a little bit of daily writing, I figure, is a way to put the hopper in its glass case, at least for a few minutes; this is the benefit, I think, to doing a bit of unscripted, unpurposed writing every day. You get a time capsule, almost, of whatever you were thinking on a given day. More than once I’ve had the thought that “oh yeah, I wrote something about that in my Drivel this morning, let me go back and read it.”
My problem is, my handwriting is atrocious, so my lovely glass case is smeared and scratched and probably not worth looking into.
I dunno, I thought there was a metaphor in there somewhere, but all this post did was make me even hungrier.
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?
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.
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.
Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.
Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”
Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.
Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?
Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.
She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.
But Gary’s not here.
His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.
With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.
He must have just forgotten it.
Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?
She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.
The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.
A library book.
Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.
And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.
With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.
It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.
It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.
Lines she never shared with anybody.
“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.
Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!
Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.
And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.
Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.
What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)
I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.
And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?
This was like that.
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.
Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.
Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?
“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”
Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?
Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.
This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.
And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.
I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.
It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.
AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.
Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.
She wanted to write a story, so she sat down at her desk to do just that.
“I can’t possibly write without the right tools,” she thought, although she had an entire desk full of pens and pencils. (Just not the right ones.)
So she loaded up her car and her cash and went to the store to buy pens and pencils and new-and-improved ink that were just right for this story and special paper made in the tradition of ancient Egyptian papyrus which wasn’t particularly relevant to her story but the thought of which appealed to her mightily. These things she took home and, just to test them out, wrote her grocery list upon them, and they were as lovely as she had hoped. So she sat down to write.
But the temperature in the room was a little bit stuffy.
“I can’t possibly write in these conditions,” she said. “What if I begin to sweat? And the sweat drips upon the paper and the ink, so carefully picked out and perfect for my purpose, smears, leaving what I’ve written unreadable?”
So she got up to adjust the thermostat. As she did, she happened to glance out the window and see the weather. Delightful! Sunny and breezy and oh-so-inviting.
“Actually,” she said, “It would be such a treat to sit outside, surrounded by nature, to feel the breeze upon my skin and the sun upon my face. Such things would surely bring me even greater inspiration and make my story that much more perfect.”
So she gathered her belongings, her new pens and perfect paper, went to the front porch, and there sat down to write her story. But as she sat, she found that the outside was not at all like the comforts of her writing desk, and was perhaps not suited to the task at all. There was no place to rest her special paper except for her lap, which she felt was not the most conducive position for writing, and her pens, when they were not in use (which was often), tended to roll off her leg and clatter upon the woodwork with a noise not at all restive to her ears.
For that matter, come to think of it, while the sun did feel nice at first, it made her uncomfortable after a time, and she found herself wishing for shade. The breeze, when it blew, alleviated this, but also whisked her pages away, so that she had to chase them into the yard and down the street.
Also, there were bugs, which were not especially helpful to her practice. So she went back inside.
As she sat back down at her comfy, perfect desk, though, she made another unhappy discovery: the thermostat, previously adjusted, had cooled the room rather too much. She adjusted it again, and was again distracted by the lovely weather outside, even though she knew it hadn’t worked out well previously.
The temperature fully suited to her creative needs, she sat down, finally, to write. But there was something else.
“What if I get thirsty?” she wondered. Truly, it would be a shame to begin her task only to be interrupted by a minor physiological annoyance. Luckily, she had an entire assortment of heated caffeinated beverages to alleviate this problem. She spent the next twenty minutes brewing the perfect cup and waiting for it to reach the perfect temperature.
At long last, it was well and truly time to write. She sat down, sipped her heated beverage.
Unfortunately, she could think of nothing to write.
“What I need,” she said to herself, “is some inspiration.”
So she set aside the story she had not yet begun to write and went in search of other stories. She started with a book she hadn’t yet finished, working her way through a few chapters. She then moved on to an old favorite film whose concepts and themes had always intrigued her. True, she’d seen it before, but a fresh viewing was sure to send up some creative sparks. Then, finally, to a TV show which she didn’t have a particular personal interest in, but she had heard good things.
Fully saturated with inspirational material, she returned to her chair. But by now, the sun had gone down.
“This will never do, the light is not quite right,” she moaned. She adjusted the lamp so that the light fell, not so much directly upon her and her work, but rather against the wall, sort of splashing down almost by accident across her desk, and this, she felt, set the right ambient mood, and she was pleased.
“Well, the light is right,” she thought, sitting down once more, “but the silence is positively unnerving.”
She turned on the radio, but the music and the lyrics soon distracted her; what she needed was the right music, so she began to search and search, curating just the right playlist to suit the ups and downs and dramatic swells for the story she was now sure to write.
The playlist was 78 hours long, which she felt might be a bit excessive, but she could always audit it later.
Everything was, now, finally, and without exception, perfect.
She sat at her desk. She drew back her sleeves. She grasped her pen. She checked her watch.
Well, it had been a good effort, but it was simply too late to write tonight.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she said, laying her pen down on her blank pages and turning off the lamp.