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Tuesday, November 24, 2015


by Alton Gansky

Perhaps it began with a stick used to draw an image in the dirt. Some would date it back to cave drawings—early finger painting. Then came wood styluses used to press cuneiform in to wet clay. We can’t overlook mallet and chisel used to create hieroglyphics on the walls of ancient tombs and the occasional obelisk or stone column. Papyrus and paper led to pointed sticks dipped in ink and bird-feather quills. (Did you know we get our word “bible,” as in The Holy Bible, from Byblos, the name of a city on the Mediterranean where early paper was made from reeds?) Then in the middle of the sixteenth century the wood cased, graphite pencil was designed. Turns out, it was a durable invention. We still use them today. It is said that John Steinbeck would use as many as 60 pencils a day in his writing. East of Eden required the sacrifice of 300 pencils.

Of course we can’t forget fountain pens and their successor the ball point pen. Then there is the glorious typewriter which invaded the business and writing world in the late 1800s. (I collect typewriters. My oldest is from 1919 and was invented by a Canadian Methodist minister…but I digress.) The typewriter made literary creation faster and easier. Some would argue that faster is not better. Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, most recently of The Wright Brothers fame, uses an old typewriter he bought secondhand in the 1960s because if slows him down. I use a computer because it speeds me up. (And again I digress.)

Then came computers and word processors. I wrote my master’s thesis on a designated word processor which was fantastic—back then. Now a decent smart phone can do more. There was desktop publishing that allowed anyone to make flyers, print ads, and even magazines. Books became e-books. Letters became e-mail. Phone calls became texting (don’t get me started).

All of this to say, writers have always made use of tools to do their work. There’s a lot of time and technology between using a stick to draw a picture in the dirt and self-publishing. For the most part, it has been revolutionary and I’m glad for it. That being said, I sometimes fear that writers can become so focused on the tools the use to write that they overlook the greatest tool they have: an imagination fueled brain.

Someone once asked me what kind of computer they needed to write a novel. I said all they needed to get started was paper and a box of pencils. James A. Michener did his work by hand and hired a typist. Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame dictated his work to secretaries.

It is easy to get caught up in the tools at the expense of the idea and that is a tragedy. Yes, if we write on a computer, then we need to master the software we use, but the focus should be on the story, not the tool. Sure we love our tools. Such is true in many professions. I used to do a good deal of woodworking and no one loves their tools more than woodworkers. A woodworker might loan you a tool or two but reach for his chisels and you might pull back a bloody stump. Chefs are that way about their knives. Put a piece of paper in front of a writer, a real writer, then he or she will start creating. Pencils, pen, crayon, typewriter, computer keyboard, it doesn’t matter, but the story.

When a writer is in “the zone and the words flow like water” she will not let her attention drift to how nice a keyboard she’s using. The focus starts with story, stays with story, and ends with story. The tool that makes that happen is found in the tool chest between our ears.

Writers long to be influenced. Not controlled. What we like is to bathe frequently in the natural springs of imagination. Swim in the story of others, drink from the well of movies, plumb the depths of an ocean of ideas. In doing so, you find your own story rising to the surface of your mind. It will tell you what to do from there.

Be careful, however, about what you allow to influence you. We tend to be picky about what we eat. We need to be just as picky about what we let influence our craft. Listen to the best, read the best, study the best, then be the best.

Alton Gansky is a writer with so many ideas he trips over them in the night.


  1. What a great article! I must add that the closing comments apply to any job or undertaking, not just writing.

  2. Al, I still give you credit for teaching me to ask, "What if...?" And that's the most valuable tool I have.
    Thanks for sharing.


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