Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's On Your Desk?

From the slightly south of sanity mind of Earl Staggs

Recently, I accepted an invitation to write a short article for THE VERB, a monthly newsletter about writing published by a terrific lady and excellent writer, Elizabeth Guy. I’ve seen other newsletters as I’m sure you have, but this is my absolute favorite. THE VERB is a well-written, polished, once-a-month, subscription only, free email publication, and I find something interesting, informative and useful in each issue. I highly recommend it to all writers. Check it out at:

Anyway, a regular feature of THE VERB is titled “What’s On Your Desk?” Each month, a different writer is invited to talk about the writing tools on his or her desk. I began my contribution in a conventional manner with mention of standard reference stuff, but soon took a hard left and came up, instead, with some tools I wish I had.

Here’s how it turned out. I hope you enjoy my detour into absurdity, but I’d like to know if you agree with my point (and there is one) at the end.

What’s On Your Desk?

The title of this column reminds me of the old line about Stephen King. While he gives us nightmares with his tales of terror and horror, it’s said he actually has the heart of an innocent five year old. He keeps it in a glass jar on his desk.

I’m afraid my desk is not that interesting. On mine are only the basic tools. There’s a big fat dictionary, of course. Without it, how would I ever remember how many m’s are in accommodate? Then I wonder why accumulate only rates one. Who decides these things? But I shouldn’t let myself be so easily distracted with the monumental questions in life when I should be writing.

Next to my dictionary sits Roget’s Super Thesaurus. This is the tool I use, primarily, to replace my humdrum verbs. After all, I shouldn’t be content with hurried when the more effectual scurried is available.

I know, I know. Both a dictionary and thesaurus are cached within my computer, only a mouse click away. But once in a while, I like to rest the mouse finger and use both hands on something with real paper and ink and pages I can turn instead of scroll.

Next to those two large tomes resides the tiny and well-thumbed copy of Strunk and White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Third Edition. With Index. After all these years of writing, I shouldn’t need reminders to “Use the active voice” and “Put statements in positive form,” but I do. Old habits adhere, especially bad ones.

While thinking about these basic tools, however, I found myself thinking of tools I might have if they were available. There I was being distracted again, but before I could bring myself back to being the disciplined writer, I came up with a Wish List of Writer’s Tools.

First, I’d need a whisk broom and dust pan. I’ll explain those in a minute or two.

The Wish List I compiled began with a series of buttons beside my keyboard. For example, I’d have a button labeled “HAD/WAS Eliminator.” A push of the button and every had and was, those heralds of passive writing, would tumble onto my desktop and be magically replaced with active and more engaging verbs and phrases. “I had left her a message at two o”clock and it was now almost six” would become “I left her a message at two, nearly four hours ago.”

Next to that button, I’d have one labeled “COMMA Relocator.” One push and the commas in the wrong place would move to where they grammatically belonged. Extra commas would fall onto the desktop to mingle with the hads and wases.

Another helpful button, the OVERUSED WORDS Exorcist, would remove the words I habitually overuse. These would include then, that and just. A single push of the button and they’d join the pile already building on my desktop and spilling over onto the floor.

By now, I was on a roll. I came up with buttons to fill plot gaps, add character depth, delete adverbs and more before I came to my senses and stopped.

What was I thinking?

These buttons would make writing easier, for sure. No longer would I have to endlessly revise, tweak, and polish. No longer would I sweat and swear for hours to make my work tight, concise and clear. That’s doing it the hard way and takes a lot of time, thought, and effort. It’s a tiresome, frustrating process fraught with periods of wondering why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place.

But you know what? Doing it the hard way earns me the right to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” when it’s finished and it’s right. When the fat lady peeks out from behind the final paragraph and belts out a tune, I can sing along. I did it the hard way and deserve to join in the chorus and celebrate the accomplishment of a tough job well done.

Besides, writing’s never been easy and shouldn’t be. If it were easy, anyone could do it and we writers wouldn’t be special.

So I shredded my Wish List. I’ll stick to my basic tools and doing it the hard way.

But I kept the whisk broom and dust pan. Even writing the hard way produces piles of had, was, other extraneous words, excess commas and more on the desktop and floor. These must be swept up and properly disposed of. Otherwise, the little buggers will breed and multiply.



Morgan Mandel said...

Those commas drive me nuts also.

Beside my desk is a small bookcase with writing reference books. The knowledge in those books automatically transfers itself into my brain my osmosis, since I've never had time to read them all.

On my desk are "important" papers. Amazing, there are so many it's hard to find what I need at any given time. Also, pens, chare cards, lottery tickets, cds, iphone charger for the car.

I need more than a whisk broom!

Double M - Morgan Mandel

Helen Ginger said...

I've decided I need a bigger desk. If I had a bigger desk, I wouldn't have to pile stuff on top of the printer or over on the couch. I wouldn't have headphones hanging on the elliptical trainer (at least it's being used). There wouldn't be sacks of stuff on the floor.

That's my theory anyway. Bigger desk. That's what I need.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm glad no one can see my desk, Earl. It's looks like the wreck of the Hesperus. Enjoyed your post, and I sure would love one of those comma buttons. :)

Chester Campbell said...

I like the bigger desk idea Helen Ginger put forth. But that would only result in more piles of paper to dig through when I'm looking for a particular note. When I print out emails and such, I trim off the unused bottom of the page for making notes. I write phone numbers but forget to put down whose they are. Boy, that's frustrating. The only time my desk looks halfway decent is when I dig through everything looking for an important piece of paper. In the process, I throw away all the incomprehensible bits.

Mark said...

I've finally solved the bigger desk problem by 1) getting rid of the old monitor and tower arrangement, and 2) buying laptop. Now my desk has room for all my notecards.

Earl Staggs said...

Certainly seems we writers have yet one more thing in common. We accumulate "stuff" all over our working area. A larger desk or buying a laptop may provide a temporary fix, but be aware of Earl's Law of Stuff (Murphy missed this one): Stuff multiplies and consumes whatever space is available.

Marilyn said...

My desk is a jumbled up mess--ever so often I try to clean it off--but seldom get rid of much.

Loved the post.

Dana Fredsti said...

Earl, loved this post! As you can see by my MakeMineMystery author photo, the only thing on my desk are cats.