Monday, February 1, 2010

'The Write Tools' #16 - Stephen M. Irwin

Welcome to another edition of ‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.

Today's guest is author and film-maker Stephen M. Irwin. Stephen's debut novel The Dead Path has been sold to the UK, US, Germany and China. He is now working on his second novel.

My dad was a carpenter. He’s long retired now, but he was trained as a craftsman, spent three years as a medical sergeant in the AIF, studied drafting, and was a clerk of works. But dad, in my mind, is the archetypal carpenter. He has a huge carpenter’s box with clips for handsaws and little drawers for bits and punches.

I remember advice dad gave me decades ago, probably one Saturday morning while putting an edge on a plane blade in preparation for another weekend renovation job: ‘Dull tools are dangerous. You have to force them to make them do their job. That’s when you slip and hurt yourself. Sharp tools are safe tools.’

My writing tools aren’t dangerous to skin and flesh. But if they aren’t used sharply (or, more to the point, if they are forced to do what they’re not ready for) I find I’ve cut great jagged rifts in my days and weeks; I haemorrhage hectolitres of precious time. And ‘writing time’, for writers, is as precious as blood. So, after many years, I’ve discovered a way to work that helps me make the most from my limited arsenal of tools and limited writing time. I do most of the writing on my Macbook, but that comes later; first comes the most important writing – the thinking-writing. For that I like most to use my Sailor 1911 Series fountain pen.

The pen was a gift from my wife, so that makes it special. It’s a fountain pen, so it takes time to unscrew, fill, and reassemble, and I like that, too – it’s all a little bit of ‘getting in the zone’, like unfolding the sawhorses and putting on the tool belt. Getting ready for work. Even removing its cap and doing a test squiggle to get the ink flowing is part of a ritual. Because when I’m using the fountain pen and writing in my big, black journal, I’m doing the most fun, most important, and most rewarding part of writing: putting down ideas.

This part is fun, because it’s limitlessly creative. No idea is too stupid or too far-fetched; no character is too wild. Writing, for me, is all about problem solving (How do I tell this idea in a fresh way? How do I make this moment suspenseful? How do I get my character from the morgue to the shipyard?), but this brainstorming process is about creating the problems. This brainstorming is important – for me, vital – because I need some structure to my stories. If I don’t investigate all the places I’d like to take it, as well as places I shouldn’t take it, sure as eggs it’ll be the latter I’ll find myself stuck in. And this creative note-taking is rewarding because here the ideas become real. Putting them on paper seems to solidify and validate them; even if they’re never used, they have been captured and – they become mine to keep or to return to the wild. They are no longer a mystery.

The fountain pen is a lovely tool for this. Since I respect it, and because I value its fine engineering and its limited fuel tank and its thousand-year-old design concept, I take care to ensure my writing is legible. I’ve compared my journal notes written with ballpoints with later ones written with the Sailor – there is a marked difference, as if I’ve just started taking Ritalin or something: my writing is suddenly readable.

The weird thing is, once I’ve written these notes in my journal, I rarely need to refer to them. It is the act of writing them down that’s for me important. For some reason, once they’re written down on paper, they’ve also been written more permanently in my brain – like those funny tracing toys that were around when I was a kid where you’d put your pencil in the plastic arm, and then use the stylus to trace around the map of Australia … and hey-presto, there was a duplicate map drawn on your clean sheet of paper. This is like that, only my fountain pen is the stylus and the important duplicate is now in my skull.

Once these ideas start accumulating – ten pages, twenty pages, whatever – they reach a critical mass and it's time to put the pen and journal aside and return to the keyboard for the hard work.

I know all authors operate differently, with individual methods and rituals. And I suppose the way we create changes as we change. But right now, I treasure the times that I put aside for working in my journal with my fountain pen. They are, for me, truly joyous. And, so far, I’ve not lost a single finger.

1 comment:

David Bennett said...

Lovely article -
One question - will ritalin make my writing readable?