Matthew Sweet reflects on how what we do is more important than the tools we use to do it.
“If Words Could Kill”
What if everything we said manifested itself in reality? What if all our words were wishes and all our wishes came true?
“I don’t like the rain.” The rain goes away. “I want to go to New Zealand.” Whoosh. You’ve arrived. “I never want to see you again!” You don’t. “I wish he was dead!” He is.
It’s National Novel Writing Month. I had some free time. I was thinking of ideas for stories.
Would everyone have this power? Would every word become reality? Or just a select few? Would they be born with it? Did you win the power after passing some test or completing a rite of passage?
What if we wanted to kill someone? Would we just say it? Could we wish ourselves immortal?
Breaking away from stories I’ll probably never write, let’s talk about pens. I don’t mean about the dangers of the written word and the impact it has on our perception and understanding of the world. I literally mean pens.
Several years ago, I worked in a business centre. Part waiter, part barman, part conference assistant, full-time lackey.
Like many other workplaces, everyone was always stealing everyone else’s pens. You’d leave one on the side, turn your back, and it would be gone.
I went and bought myself a fancy Parker pen. I say fancy. It cost me ten pounds. It made the next few weeks of work hell.
I’d become accustomed to just leaving pens around the place after I’d finished with them. No more. This was my Parker pen. I had to keep it with me at all times.
I was agitated when someone asked to borrow it. Borrow meant take and never return. I don’t remember much about those days but I remember the stupid attachment to my Parker pen.
After a few weeks, I stopped using it. The mechanism that retracted the nib broke. My anxiety left.
It’s not unusual for people to take pride in the tools of their craft. I remember watching this documentary about Japanese joinery. The care they expended on the tools of their trade was mesmerising.
In my desk drawer, I have a pencil case full of black, Bic biros. No anxiety inducing Parker pens around here. I learned my lesson.
They’re strewn around the house. Several upstairs. Some in the lounge. A few on my desk. It doesn’t matter if I lose one or misplace another. They’re functional. They work. They’re easily replaceable.
In Shadow Divers, Robert Kurson describes how an experienced diver’s gear is devoid of ornamentation and frills. It’s pure function. He says rather than investing in one hundred dollar knives, they use ten dollar ones. Why? So that when they are narced (suffering from a buildup of excess nitrogen in the blood which amplifies emotions and distorts judgement) they won’t feel compelled to risk their lives saving an expensive but expendable tool.
Our fascination with the tools we use to do our work could easily be extended to our creative environments. But, just as the tool doesn’t dictate the work, the situation we create in shouldn’t hold our ability to ransom. As Michael Lewis said when asked, “Is there anywhere you need to be in order to write?”
“No, I’ve written in every conceivable circumstance. I like writing in my office, which is an old redwood cabin about a hundred yards from my house in Berkeley. It has a kitchen, a little bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room, which I use as as study. But I’ve written in awful enough situations that I know that the quality of the prose doesn’t depend on the circumstance in which it is composed. I don’t believe the muse visits you. I believe that you visit the muse. If you wait for that “perfect moment” you’re not going to be very productive.”
It’s the same in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The gi you wear or the mats you roll on aren’t indicative of your ability. They might help a little, but ultimately it comes down to how good you are.
And in programming. It’s not the software used that makes the programmer, it’s how good the guy or gal actually is.
I’ve yet to see anyone who asked Picasso what brushes he used. He’s remembered for his paintings, not for the tools he used to complete them.
The tool is an implement we use to do the work. Our preferred environment helps us to do the work. But at the end of the day, they’re both a means to an ends.
The work we do is more important than what we use to do it. The work is, in the end, all that matters.