A Writer's Toolbox
In his autobiography-cum-writing manual "On Writing," Stephen King recalls the summer day when he helped his Uncle Oren fix a broken screen at the back of his house. Uncle Oren was a carpenter and, like all craftsmen, he had a receptacle to hold his tools. King's description is lyrical:
"The toolbox was what we called a big 'un. It had three levels, the top two removable, all three containing little drawers as cunning as Chinese boxes. It was handmade, of course. Dark wooden slats were bound together by tiny nails and strips of brass. The lid was held down by big latches; to my child's eye they looked like the latches on a giant's lunchbox. Inside the top was a silk lining, rather odd in such a context and made more striking still by the pattern, which was pinkish-red cabbage roses fading into a smog of grease and dirt. On the sides were great big grabhandles. You never saw a toolbox like this for sale at Wal-Mart or Western Auto."
("On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King. New York: Scribner, 2000. pp. 111-113)
King estimates that "fully loaded," Uncle Oren's toolbox "weighed between eighty and a hundred and twenty pounds."
The repair job was simple: remove the busted screen and replace it with a new one. All it took was a screwdriver.
The job done, King asked his uncle a question: why did he lug the heavy toolbox to the back of the house "if all he'd needed was that one screwdriver," an implement that would easily have fit in his pants pocket.
"Yeah, but Stevie," he said, bending to grasp the handles," I didn't know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It's best to have your tools with you. If you don't, you're apt to find something you didn't expect and get discouraged."
Building on that metaphor, King advises writers to create their own toolbox and suggests some of its contents: vocabulary, grammar, form and style.
I love this section of King's book for many reasons. For the purposes of this blog, it's especially valuable because it speaks to one of its two identities that the craft demands: the mechanic, that is, the expert in craft who has a firm grasp of writing tools and how, when, where, and why to use them.
Sources of tools abound. My colleague, Roy Peter Clark, offers 50 writing tools, available at NewsU.org and soon to appear in book form. A list I conjured several years ago offers a set of figurative tools, inspired by the itinerant bags that actors carried in Shakespeare's day to hold the makeup, costumes, props and other items that helped them assume a new role. (The allusion, I hope, explains, the thespianic pose I strike in the accompanying photo. That is, I'm a hopeless ham.)
One of the most useful and inspiring collections is the subject of my latest "Chip on Your Shoulder" column: a new book called Spunk & Bite : A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language & style by Arthur Plotnik. (And yes, I know I buried the lead.)
Plotnik provides more than enough tools to begin filling a toolbox as capacious as the one Stephen King's Uncle Oren relied upon.
There's a saying around my house: Give Chip a tool; he'll break something.
Plotnik's book offers lessons that could reverse that truism, at least, in my role as literary handyman. Give Chip a writing tool; he might just make something.
And so might you.