Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sharp Tools

I like to cook. I am certainly no trained chef, but it has become a hobby of mine. I like to learn about food, experiment, and of course eat yummy stuff. As I've learned more about cooking, I've discovered just how important it is to have good tools.

When Nick and I first got married, we received two knives. Two—a regular chopping-type knife and a pairing knife. That's it. They were decent knives, new and sharp, but still it was just two knives besides our butter knives.

I only had two knives for...almost five years. I made do, you know? We aren't rich by any means, and the knives were knives, even if they had gotten dull from lots of use and didn't really get the job done. But then one day I saw this beautiful knife set for a STEAL, and I was like, "You know, we've been married for five years and maybe it would be okay to splurge and get some real knives. Complete with a knife block! And scissors! And a sharpener!"

Guys, I love these knives.

They are sharp. They make my job so much easier. In fact, I hadn't noticed just how dangerous a dull knife was until I had good ones. Dull knives slip, plus they encourage you to press down harder than necessary—not a good combo for keeping your fingers. With my new knives, I get things done faster.

This goes for the amazing Calphalon cookware my parents bought me for Christmas, too. Oh man, those things cook so evenly and heat up quickly. I have a cruddy old stove with two broken burners, and sometimes it would be a battle just to get it hot enough to boil water. With the pots? Don't have to worry.

So yeah, TOOLS. They are important.

But they aren't everything, right? I mean, is someone a photographer just because they have a nice camera? Is someone an artist just because they have nice paint brushes? No, of course not. Good tools don't make an artist, but they facilitate the creation of art. The relationship between an artist and their tools, how they treat them, says a lot.

Since I've gotten into cooking, I've noticed one easy way to tell if someone isn't—their knives suck. No offense to my dear friends and family with dull knives, cooking isn't for everyone and that's fine. But I've found it an interesting sign. I'd never thought of it before. The tools of the trade go neglected or are only used if necessary. And then when they are used they aren't efficient at all.

Of course I'm going to compare this to writing. You all better have seen that coming. It seems to be true in every art form. As an artist, I treasure my Prismacolor pencils, I care for my tablet, I clean my brushes and make sure they don't get frayed. I get the best tools I can afford, because I know good tools will help me make better art. Just like good knives help me make better food. Etc. and so forth.

But what are our tools in writing? I guess you could say pens and pencils, notebooks, computer, printers, which do help. I'm thinking more of mental tools, though, things that we use to craft stories: grammar, punctuation, plot, character, setting, theme, etc.

When I first started writing seriously, oh, five years ago, I must admit I was a writer in spirit, but I essentially had a spoon and one pot when it came to writing tools. Could I make a meal with those tools? Sure. Was it a good meal? Eh. My novels lacked finesse because I didn't have what I needed—I had to learn and work and practice. A lot. I had to sharpen my tools and get new ones to help me do my job better.

I'm still learning. I'm still adding tools to my drawer. But there's one thing I do know: Take your tools seriously. Sure, you may not think you need it. You might think you can make do with those two knives. Trust me, you will be so much happier when you have a full set. Not only will you be able to write more easily, but it will also be better writing. Which we all want, right?


  1. First of all, I love your new blog look! And I like your new picture, although you don't look like Harper anymore, which makes me oddly sad :)

    That's such a good comparison. I'm a few steps above the spoon and one pot in my writing, but scouring writing marketplaces constantly to add to my hoard. I mean collection.

    And for the record, I have really crappy knives.

  2. Jeigh, Harper who? I look like someone? I don't get that often.

  3. I totally get this. I was working with a bad computer for quite some time. It was a constant worry that it might freeze, or just crash in general. I started getting tense and nervous before I even started typing. As soon as I set up a new stable computer, and in a nicer workspace, the words started coming much easier.

    When you don't have the right tools to get the job done, the job just gets neglected. Thanks for the post :)

  4. I love the new blog! And your pic!

    And yeah, my tool kit is still lacking. But I'm working on it.

  5. Your blog looks like it just got out of the shower- all fresh and bright! :D :D
    I loved the way you connected cooking and knives to writing.. :) I kinda agree with the principle, except that I've still not figured out what is I'm going to stick to.. I keep changing my mind.. Imagine if I went out and bought a beautiful set of knives, only to give up cooking altogether the very next day.. :\ :\
    I will keep this in mind when I find my calling, though. So thanks! :) :)

  6. Are they Calphalon knives? I adore our Calphalon knives!

    To take your analogy a step further - for Christmas two years ago, we gave my MIL, who constantly cuts herself cooking, one good knife (yes, we were broke). We explained it would help her not cut herself, but it sits unused in a drawer. She claims its too scary to use. We all know writers who have the tools and knowledge, but stubbornly stick to old routines. They read blogs and books and go to critique groups, but are too scared or too stubborn to try out their new skills. We have to be brave and experiment, no matter how bright that knife's edge gleams.

  7. Great article, your analogy works really well. I think I'm at your "two knives stage" in my writing. I have to stop worrying about getting all of the little things sorted and just dive in head first. I might burn myself in the attempt but that's how you learn for the next time.

  8. We bought a $9.99 set at Kohl's when we first got married. Two years ago, for our anniversary we finally got REAL lives. My life has never been better...or my fingers more mutilated...but still better.

    P.S. I missed you! I'm glad you posted today!

  9. Excellent metaphor! And YES YES YES:

    "Good tools don't make an artist, but they facilitate the creation of art. The relationship between an artist and their tools, how they treat them, says a lot."

    I find myself thinking that a lot about photographers. I have a "cheapo" digital camera, but a good eye, so I often take better photos than people with amazing (and expensive) DSLRs but no sense of composition. Now, if I wanted to be a photographer instead of a writer, lol, I'd probably upgrade my tool. But as a hobbyist, I do well enough.

    It's in my writing where I am trying to make sure I have the best, "sharpest" tools I can get -- both literal and figurative. And I try not to feel guilty about investing my time/money on them.

  10. P.S.S. I mean knives. Not lives. I'm pretty sure we had those before.

  11. My knives are definitely lacking...I'm hoping the writing ones are getting sharper.

    I love the new pic/template--it's fun to play with changing things around, so much easier on the blog than on the walls at home...and I don't have to run the colors by my husband, which makes it that much better.

  12. The new pic and blog are fab! I love this analogy. I'm still packing my toolbox as well. I think craft research goes into the toolbox- however you do it; by reading craft books, industry blogs, novels in your genre.

  13. I'm still using a small George Foreman for cooking and a laptop...

  14. I had some calphalon pans and loved them, but they kind of died after five years of use and I need to desperately replace them. I love the tool analogy for writing. Great post.

  15. Loving all these insights!

    Anita, Calphalon has a lifetime guarantee! You can take those to any store that sells Calphalon and they will give you new ones no charge.

  16. Love the point you made with this post--it's such an important thing to remember to keep our mental tools as sharp as our physical tools. Thanks!

  17. Sharpest keyboard out there you're going to find (Make sure you pick buckling spring):

    Ugliest piece of crap you will ever see, but also the best. Keyboards are so neglected....

    [If you're truly hardcore, you'd pick a 101 key.]

  18. Great analogy. I have to admit that I have an old favorite knife I use all the time. And glad you are back. I was worried about you.

  19. Definitely well said! (BTW, you are an awesome cook--especially when it comes to grilling burgers ...)

    Great analogy. Great blog!

  20. You come up with the best analogies! BTW I am loving the new blog layout :)