Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Balance Game

Sharon Wildwind

Last week I wrote about ways to reduce, reuse and recycle ideas. Click here if you want to read that blog.

Writing isn’t just an ideas game. The history of writing is also the history of technology. Tools make certain results possible. When the typewriter came along, it upped the amount of writing that could be turned out.

Tools also set limits. When a tool is no longer made, or we’ve lost the knowledge of how to use it, possibilities disappear. When a new tool appears, possibilities increase. Therein lies a problem.

It takes a long time to learn the limits of a new tool. In the short story To Bring in the Steel by science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury, a character has a bad experience taking up pottery as a hobby. She’s stopped from giving it up by another character who tells her that she won’t know if she’s any good at pottery until she’s spent 1,000 hours getting to know the limits of both clay and the potter’s wheel. There’s a phrase in our house, “This is part of Kingsbury’s 1,000 hours.”

I once worked on a hospital unit where two women job-shared the evening unit clerk position. At shift’s end, there was frequently some clerical down time.

Typing e-mail and looking up lab results was the extent of their computer skills. One of the women used her down time to practice typing. At least that was more work-related than playing tetras or solitaire. The other woman started by exploring the word processing program’s Help feature. She moved on to learning what each drop-down menu button did. Can you guess which one got promoted within six months?

Essential writing tools are simple: a mark-maker, usually ink, pen, typewriter, or computer/printer with word processing software. A markable surface: paper or a computer screen. A way to check spelling and grammar. Everything else is gravy. It’s the gravy where we often get bogged down, especially if that gravy involves electronics, software, and the Internet. Social media is interesting. It’s a tool/method hybrid where we often have to learn both components at the same time.

Remember Home Improvements, the television program about guys and tools? Tim Taylor’s take on tools was bigger, faster, nosier, and  more powerful. Al Borland had a different idea. I like Al’s approach.

Know why I need a tool, and what the tool I’m buying does.
Compare similar tools from different manufacturers.
Buy the best tool I can afford.
Limit the number of tools on hand.
Use each tool in as many ways as possible. (Safely, of course)
Take care of tools. 
An old tool, in good repair, that’s still doing what I need may be preferable to a new tool.
A tool of any age, in bad repair or one that has stopped doing what I need, is a bad idea. It’s time to move on.
Be as green as possible when disposing of tools. Old electronic gizmos are especially toxic in landfills.

Method is voice. It is the filtering of ideas through the body and tools, across time and space. An idea never remains pure. Tools, space, and time distort the idea. Other ideas come along. A tool doesn’t work exactly as we thought it would. Our body surprises it in what it refuses to do.  All writing is layers, and by the time we lay the last layer down, chances are the first layer, the original idea, has all but disappeared.

Hands-on is the only way to develop good methods. Pen, ink, and paper were pretty easy to figure out. Computers, software and the Internet not so much. Hands up, all of us who use a writing program. My hand is up. Now, hands up all of us who understand at least 90% of the features on that program? 75%? 50%? 25%?

I figure I come in at about 35% on the programs I use. Even at that low level, I still manage to write books and plays. Imagine what I could do if, like that forward-thinking unit clerk, I’d devoted time to learning more features, one-by-one. I'd be strengthening not only my writing, but my method and voice as well.

Quote for the week
The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.
~Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), American author, poet, philosopher, naturalist, tax resister, historian, and transcendentalist


Sandra Parshall said...

I bought and installed Scrivener, and now I'm afraid to even try to use it. Somehow my clunky process of doing everything in a word processor program seems... comforting. Familiar. I wonder how many of us stick with the same tools for that reason.

Sharon Wildwind said...

I felt the same way about Scrivener, and now I love it. You'd have to offer me a pretty impressive product to have me consider giving it up. It's my lifeline.