Tools of Inspiration
We writers have many tools.
We have our words, the nouns and verbs and adjectives and even the woefully despised adverbs, poor dears. We have our talent, our rare gift for putting the right words in the right order to make our readers weep, laugh, thrill, buy — or just turn the page. We have our minds, straining through the days and nights to create and hold onto the ideas that fill our words with meaning.
And we have our word processors. The tools we use to actually capture those ideas and put them down in words, the software and laptops and notebooks and ballpoints. These tools aren’t quite so glamorous. They seem so everyday, so mundane, so… boring.
And yet, there are few writers that aren’t infinitely fussy when it comes to their physical tools, who don’t demand just the right pencil on just the right paper, or who don’t secretly thrill at the prospect of a new notebook computer to carry down to that oh-so-perfect café. (We’re a little fussy about places, too.)
And why not? The tools we use to get our thoughts out of our head and onto paper (or increasingly, the screen) are the medium of our calling. You wouldn’t look askance at a painter who demanded the right brand of oil paint and a canvas prepared just so, right? A word processor or legal pad is a writer’s canvas; a keyboard or fountain pen her brush.
The truth is, there is inspiration in our tools. Just as the heft of a good chisel can make a woodworker itch to carve, a well-made writing instrument — whether a fine pen or a beautifully-designed word processor — can make us long to write, drawing from us the creative spark.
There are writers who write just to feel the flow of ink on the page (I’m one of them). There are others who are inspired by the shape of a font, the feel of a keyboard, the image of their words spilling across the screen (I’m one of those, too). I’m not kidding when I say that I was so impressed by Adobe’s gorgeous online word processor Buzzword that I wrote a book. Just so I could play with it.
Of course, there are writers who claim to be perfectly comfortable with a chewed-up #2 pencil and a student’s composition book. (Granted, it has to be a Blackwing 602 pencil and the composition books are imported from a stationer in France….) But writers as a whole are especially prone to fetishizing our instruments, and with good reason: the way we write, the look and feel and smell and atmosphere of the experience of writing itself, affects the outcome of our writing.
Gertrude Stein wrote on scraps of paper on the dashboard of her Ford (which she called “Godiva”). Neil Gaiman writes with a fountain pen, in a Moleskine notebook. Lillian Jackson Braun, the author of the “The Cat Who…” mysteries, writes only on a typewriter. Speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison is also a typewriter fanatic, whose devotion to his Olivia is well-known. Jonathan Lethem has given up his typewriter but remains committed to “the eternal Selectric of the mind” (as he told Slate in 2007) — he only writes in 12-point Courier, double-spaced of course.
And on and on. Some writers pick a specific tool for a specific book, like a musician who chooses just the right guitar for each song. Neal Stephenson wrote his epic Baroque Trilogy, which is several thousand pages in published form, in longhand with a fountain pen on cotton paper. Stephen King wrote Dreamcatcher with a fountain pen, too, saying it forced him to slow down and get into the story.
It might be irrational to find inspiration in our tools, to bind ourselves to the way a specific pen or pencil looks or feels. After all, the words, the tone, the rhythm, the meaning — these all come up from within, right? And yet we writers are irrational creatures by our very natures. Why else choose to spend long hours locked away alone as our preferred method of communicating with people?
Rational or not, investing our tools with the power to draw forth meaning from the depths of our beings is a very human, and very writerly, thing to do. It pleases us to use good tools, especially when we use them well. It’s all well and good to meditate on how we spin the raw stuff of everyday life into complexly woven tales rich with insight into the human condition, but we shouldn’t forget the less exciting but no less essential tools we use to relate those tales to the rest of the world.
They are, after all, tools of inspiration.