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The Writer’s Toolbox

The Writer’s Toolbox

A Session with Peter Murphy

I have always been skeptical of any attempt to offer writer’s advice, as there are so many types of writers, each with a different perspective, working in such a variety of genres. That, I think, might discount the possibility of a one-size-fits-all set of rules or guidelines.

Instead, I have found some wisdom in the generalities that most writers seem to agree on, and one of those is that writers, like all craftspeople, must learn how to use the tools of their trade. Among these tools are the obvious hammers and chisels, and we will consider those first.

When the creative juices are flowing, getting the words down cannot happen fast enough. At times like these we can only marvel at those who worked with quill and quire. Even typewriters seem so obsolete when remembering that liquid paper and actual cutting and pasting were all part of the writer’s toolbox. Today, assuming we have familiarity with computers, and that we can type at reasonable speed, we can write, edit, cut, paste, and correct with relative ease, and without using reams and reams of paper.

Yes, it is tedious reading on flat screens, but it is a small price to pay for the advantage of being able to track and store previous versions, etc. Today’s writer is well provided for and with a reasonable back-up practice can avoid the fate of Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys as he watched a couple of thousand, single-spaced pages blow off into the river.

Yes, the ability to type with some speed and accuracy are desirable, but for the most part, today’s writer can spend more of his or her time focusing on characters, plot, language, and the basic conventions of writing styles and forms. And those fiddly little metaphors and similes that allow you to make the fancy twirls and touches.

With that in mind, getting your posterior into the chair is vital, and a good working space is considered important. A favorite question from interviewers is, “Can you describe your working space?” I usually avoid that question, as I wrote half of my last book, sprawled in a comfy chair under constant harassment of my attention-addicted adopted terrier. I even managed a few pages with her sitting in my lap, though her efforts to join in and tap along on the keyboard were not helpful. Yes, finding a good working space has importance but if you are waiting to find the perfect spot, you may want to consider a few of the following points.

Develop Commitment

This, for me, is the single most important tool a writer needs. Since publishing my first book, I have smiled at all those people who insist on relating by telling me that are going to write a book – one day. When I was young and feckless, I spent hours in one of Dublin’s literary bars. The place was a regular haunt for some of the giants of Irish writing and others who were literary by osmosis. I was young and unaffiliated then, and spent many evenings listening to plans for great novels that would make Joyce seem like a hack. I was even moved to write about it in my work-in-progress, Stolen Moments from an Ordinary Life:

Brilliant minds lolled in drunken stupor and talked of a day when they would commit it all to paper. But as the realisation grew that few of them would ever do it, they began to talk of defeat – that everything worth seeing had been seen and that everything worth reading had been read and that everything worth saying had been said. And yet they continued to talk and drink until so much of what they were was wasted – discharged into pools of piss. 

The point here, as in the rest of the life, is don’t go around talking about it when you could be doing it. Commitment is a decision to actually do something, and once you learn how to use the power of determination against the demons of procrastination you will begin to have mastery over the body and the mind and that should get you to your favourite working space, hunched over the keyboard, and you will be where you need to be.

Finding Inspiration

Many of those who say that they will write a book one day, tell me they are waiting for inspiration. This, to my mind, is an absurdity. Every day, you and I walk through a world that is overflowing with stories just waiting to be told. Love blossoms and withers everywhere and we can glimpse all of life’s struggles through all kinds of adversity behind every face in the crowd. Hope, despair, triumph, cruelty, and generosity are all around us and call out to the writer’s ear.

That, I suppose, is the point. A writer must learn how to listen, to filter out the clamour and hear the whispers that others ignore. Writers must train themselves to see what others overlook. A writer must develop empathies and sympathies and be curious when others are dismissive.

Let’s consider all of this. Dictionary.com defines Empathy as:

  • the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
  • the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self. 

Sympathy as:

  • harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
  • the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.
  • the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.

Sympathies as:

  • feelings or impulses of compassion.
  • feelings of favor, support, or loyalty: It’s hard to tell where your sympathies lie. 

And Curiosity as:

  • the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness.
  • a curious, rare, or novel thing.
  • a strange, curious, or interesting quality.

Born and Bred by Peter MurphyWhat has all of this got to do with the Writer’s Toolbox? Well, these are the responses most writers will want to evoke in their readers, so it would seem obvious that a good writer has to learn them and own them first.

A number of years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Dublin with my nieces and nephews—a delightful bunch of bright young people. In time, we got to talking about the recent murder of an alleged drug dealer. We all had comments and observations that ranged from sympathy, through empathy, to curiosity as to how a young life could have g