Blog Excerpts

A Writer's Toolbox

This entry comes The Mechanic & the Muse , "an owners manual for writers" -- the terrific blog of respected journalist, columnist and teacher Chip Scanlan. It appeared on 3/6/6.

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 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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 24th 2006, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Martha B.
I drive to my piano students' houses, in a mountainous area of The Hudson River Highlands. I carry 3 bags: one for the teaching music, carved wooden music clef sign, plans and calendars, note-taking, extra battery for a student's metronome; one my purse with cell phone & any personal item I might need within 3 hours; one for recording equipment for both DIGITAL and ANALOG capture of student's performing or composing.
Yes, classical music tools thus becomes a "heavy" subject. This is not to mention my car trunk with the extra boots, flashlights, maps, water bottles.
Once in a blue moon I walk in to a lesson with nothing but a pencil!
Thank you for your article. Martha
Friday September 1st 2006, 8:53 PM
Comment by: Shannon P.
Speaking of inspiring boxes . . . here's one my mother gave as a birthday gift. Mom didn't say much, so I learned what she valued in what she saved. On my 50th birthday, she gave something back. Her gifts were always rituals of thoughtfulness, but when I opened the exquisitely wrapped box, I found curled locks from my baby hair, a scribbled first-grade poem, my precious horse drawings, thank-you notes and all 12 school report cards. All neatly tied in pink ribbons. With a catch in my throat, I thanked her for giving back the little girl I had lost.

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