Writing With Hand Tools
By Nick Horton
In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.
- Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
- Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
- Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
- Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
- Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
- Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.
Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.
Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.
Writing Without Writing
Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.
For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.
That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.
Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.
In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.
Writing is a Craft
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.
Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.
Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.
Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.
Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology
The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.
To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….
Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.
Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.
He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.
Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.
An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.
It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.
Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)
You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.
A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.
A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.
To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.
Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.
Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.
Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.
Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.