Are we only as good as our tools?

Top Chef: Masters will be premiering tonight. Needless to say, I am thrilled. Real chefs with real restaurants who are well-off enough to play for charities.

But something struck me as very interesting–initially I thought, whoa, this’ll be tough because these guys really know their game. They’ve gone through the real-life ringer already. They must be awesome. What challenges could possibly, well, challenge them?

In the past Top Chef has had chefs make amuse bouches via vending machine, forced them to cater street parties, twisted their chefly arms into creating a unique ice cream flavor, given them budgets of $10 to feed a family of four. Not easy. The tasks force the chefs to get creative and use all techniques available to them. (Still not as hard as a round with an Iron Chef, I’m pretty sure, but definitely taxing.)

Then, in the preview/teaser I hear one chef say that he doesn’t shop for ingredients in a grocery store. That brought me up short–then I realized they have all their ingredients shipped in straight from the farms, lifted right up out of the ocean, or butchered a block away. These ingredient are brought in by purveyors…meaning the chefs don’t head into a grocery store and sift through the offal to get the gold. So even something as simple as sending these professional chefs out into a grocery store with a time limit is really something that makes their life difficult.

All this made me think about writing.

What if we did not have the happy computer tool that everyone has? What if we had to make our own pens, develop our own ink, etc. etc. etc. With the invention and popularization of the technology I’m using even as I type this out, everyone thinks they’re a writer. More and more and more people are bombarding agents with manuscripts hastily typed out and sped along. But typing isn’t writing. Not all of the people click-clacking away would think about writing if they had to go pluck the bird that would give them the quill (or hunt around outside for an appropriate tool). If writing were an inconvenience, would we still do it?

Imagination is needed to write, like cooking. A certain skill level is needed to produce something worth reading or eating. Technique is given to utilize the necessary tools of the trade (grammar and language for the writer, ingredients for the chef–without those basic things there’s nothing). But if you don’t have a chef’s knife or a computer, are you doomed to never produce something worth tasting or something worth reading?

Sure, you can pummel vegetables to death, but carrot mush just isn’t as tasty when compared to neat slices of carrot. I’m sure you could write a dissertation without spell check or a backspace button…but who will want to decipher the crap you’re putting out?

Is the easiest way to separate the wheat from the chafe to simply take away the tools and see who can come up with something brilliant? In Quills the Marquis de Sade is depicted as writing with his own blood (and fecal matter) because he can’t stop the writing that needs to come out (or perversions…whatever you want to take from that…).

I know what you’re thinking: Shakespeare didn’t have a typewriter. But he’s Shakespeare. That’s my point. I bet Shakespeare would have written in blood. (Oooo, maybe he did–“Out damned spot!”)

What tools do you, as a writer, absolutely need in order to write? Blood and a needle? Pencil? Paper? Spray paint and a wall? Fresh clean snow and the call of nature? The computer?

4 thoughts on “Are we only as good as our tools?

Add yours

  1. Interesting thought, Jenny. Ultimately, it's really a question of discipline/drive.

    I figure those who are really motivated are going to write, no matter what tools they have to resort to. Those who write just 'cause typing is easy, would give it up if they had to mix their own ink.

  2. I agree. It's like people who think anyone can spatter paint and call it art. Not as easy as it looks.

    It's interesting that you bring this up now, because I had a discussion yesterday about the difference between people who want to be writers and people who want to write. An old song, I know, but there you are.

    I LOVE my laptop. But if it's not around, that doesn't mean I stop writing. In fact, I think all of us enjoy scribbling in a notebook. How many of us have jotted ideas on napkins or scraps of paper so they aren't lost?

    The other day I started into a migraine, which means wavy lines in my vision. Couldn't work on the computer at all, because the glow of the screen makes it worse. So I got out my notebook. When that got too hard to see, I worked in my head until I could focus again.

    On the flip side, I do not agree with Ellison that you have to use primitive tools in order to be a writer. A typewriter (or self-mixed ink) doesn't make one more of a writer than a computer does either.

    You do manage to hit my buttons sometimes.

  3. “Grain from the CHAFF”. Chaff isn't chafe, and it's already part of wheat, but not part of grain. You seperate chaff from the grain.

    A dissertation written entirely without a spellchecker has never been done, I would think. But back in the day “spellchecker” was another word for “under classmen”. My Granddad the rocket scientists tells stories about having freshmen double-checking his proofs and stuff.


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