Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Retreat Musings: Nuts and Bolts

I promised to share some of my thoughts from my recent writing retreat. Here's a start:

Sometimes, I think people pigeonhole writers as the flighty, imaginative sort. We're good at dreamily gazing out the window, making up things out of thin air. But I think the act of writing (and especially revision) is closer to problem-solving. Writers are the mechanics of the written word! And a great deal of what we do is by trial and error.

Last night, my son called me down to the basement to fix his guitar.

I don't play guitar, I don't know (in any detail) how a guitar works, and I absolutely don't know how to fix one. But I did it, and without Google!

Above is the part that was broken. It's where the musician plugs in the jack for the amp, and it was designed by the devil. (Or maybe that evil coffee mug designer.) The nut and the thin washer underneath had both fallen off, causing the 1/4 inch jack receptacle they support to collapse into the guitar.

Imagine us, one holding the guitar upside down, to make the metal tube slide barely out of the hole. Then the other person would try to grab it, straighten it, and hold it by a fingernail. Then the fruitless attempts to slide either the washer or the nut over the tube without knocking it back down inside. AAAAARGGGGH!

Finally, I called in the needle-nosed pliers. And yes, they could hold the tube out more firmly than a fingernail. But...they were always in the way. It's not mechanically possible to put a washer or a nut over something you're also gripping by an edge. (That didn't stop me from trying, however. Sometimes, I think the laws of nature will bend to my stubbornness.)

And then! And then!! I had the brilliant idea of slipping the washer and the bolt over the end of the pliers BEFORE I stuck the end in the hole. AND I didn't grip the tube; I inserted the pliers and kept the tube from slipping back into the guitar with pressure from the inside. Voila! The washer settled over the tube, then the nut, too. We screwed it tightly back on. I did the Happy Triumph Dance of Mechanical Genuis. (Please do not tell me if you already knew the answer five paragraphs ago. I'm still impressed with myself. )

Anyhow, it made me think of my writing retreat, and the sessions where we'd all gather and read our work. Time after time, I was impressed with my fellow word mechanics. These writers were willing to do whatever it took to make their story WORK. There were stalled manuscripts, and whole books that had to be re-built from the ground up, and loose parts, and maddening boxes of pieces that were supposed to go somewhere, but just didn't fit.

And yet, we all worked for the solutions with stubbornness of good mechanics. We shared tools with each other. (Cool! A storyboard!) We asked for test runs. (Could you try that in third person?) We didn't let each other give up on what needed fixing.

Because as Laini said: the only tool a piece of writing has to use against you is intimidation. You, on the other hand, have way more than needle-nosed pliers: You have a keen sense of smell, able to detect word crap. You have an ear for when a story engine is running smoothly and when it's not. You have a heightened vision for seeing a character's deepest desire. You can taste the right opening for your story when it rolls off your tongue. You can find your way out of the deepest plot thickets by touching your fingers to the keyboard, over and over and over.

Those tools, plus lots and lots of trial and error (and yes, some stubbornness) are the nuts and bolts of writing. Thank you, fellow retreat writers, for letting me witness the work of mechanical geniuses in action!


  1. Sadly, I've never experienced the Happy Triumph Dance of Mechanical Genius.

    Of course writers are problem-solvers! The best kind there are. (That kind of problem-solving HAS to be waaaaaay more fun than, say, computer problem-solving, which is its own kind of evil.)

  2. Heck, I barely figured it out after you explained it, much less 5 paragraphs before.

    Thank YOU, my dear genius friend.

  3. Terrific post, and I bow to your mechanical genius! "Word mechanics," yeah, I really like that.

    My husband, who is very mechanically adept, once couldn't figure out how to replace the windshield of his car. Something about the rubber seal got stuck/didn't fit. I suggested using some liquid soap, and the glass slid in without a hitch. I did the mechanical happy dance that day . . .

  4. I am well impressed by your mechanical prowess as well as your writing!

  5. What a lovely comparison. You're very good at figuring out the problems. I like the way you think, Sara. And I must also say I am impressed you thought to grab your camera as you fixed the guitar. Nice!

  6. Tanya, I didn't grab my camera until later, when I decided to blog about it. The photos are a re-enactment! At the time, I was using all my available brain power and all my digits too....the camera would've had to have been triggered by my toes or something. :)

  7. So empowering! Nothing makes me feel better than fixing something.

  8. Great post. You are a genius in so many ways!


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