Tools (and talent)

I love a good tools talk. You listen to the great ones talk about the tools and techniques they use to get through the day, and by the end of it you’re inspired to go out and buy some software or some special Sakura pens and a Moleskine notebook or something like that. At its most delusional, this kind of thinking will convince you that you can play like Michael if you can just get a pair of those shoes. At the shallow end of the pool your thinking runs more like this: if I own that guitar, at least it won’t be the tool that stops me from being another Clapton.

I have a strong memory from years ago of cleaning up after a raucous party. A really talented pianist had played my piano, and the sounds it made for him astonished me. Long after the guests had left, I remember staring at that piano and thinking, that can’t be the same machine I play. It was surprised and hurt by my long accusing glare. It knew what I was thinking: why don’t you make those sounds for me?

I started down this line of thinking after reading a column David Pogue wrote on his productivity secrets. It was refreshing because he tells it like it is. Oh sure, you can buy iData and Dragon Naturally Speaking and maybe you too will soon have your own column in the New York Times. But near the end, Pogue drops the bomb.

I’m just the sort of person who kind of knows what he wants to say; I can’t remember ever staring at the blank screen, trying to think of what to write.

Oh, right… I can see how that would be useful.

Armed only with borrowed pen and paper, the impoverished James Joyce wrote Ulysses in a series of squalid noisy flats. Hmmm… what did he have that I don’t have? Maybe it was the shoes. To recap: to write your great novel, use a Mead Spiral Bound College Ruled Notebook, a Sanford Papermate #2 Pencil, and be ambitious, hard working, and fantastically talented.

‘Kay thanks bye.

Ulysses S. Grant invents American prose

If you read first-hand accounts of the Civil War, you get used to a certain blustery high-minded prose style peppered with tortured latinate constructions. In witness of their poltroonery, we set upon the knaves with much promptitude, winning the battlement with but minor effusion of blood, etc. etc. Huzzah!

When I read this stuff I think to myself: Did they talk to each other like this? Did they talk to their families like this? Yonder mongrel absconded with my Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper! After him, lad! Let the cur be seized! Huzzah!

That’s why it’s so refreshing to read the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a man completely devoid of the boastful, windy style of so many of his peers. Grant became close friends with Mark Twain near the end of his life, and it was Twain who published Grant’s memoirs. Between the two of them, I believe they invented modern American prose. I always wonder how much Twain influenced Grant’s writing. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on their conversations.

For a quick comparison of styles, consider these descriptions of the events preceding the surrender of Fort Donelson in 1862. The first is by Lew Wallace, a Union commander and a famous author in his own right (he wrote the best-selling Ben Hur).


“The night of the 14th of February fell cold and dark, and under the pitiless sky the armies remained in position so near to each other that neither dared light fires. Overpowered with watching, fatigue, and the lassitude of spirits which always follows a strain upon the faculties of men like that which is the concomitant of battle, thousands on both sides lay down in the ditches and behind logs, and whatever else would in the least shelter them from the cutting wind, and tried to sleep.


The sun went down on the night of the 14th of February, 1862, leaving the army confronting Fort Donelson anything but comforted over the prospects. The weather had turned intensely cold; the men were without tents and could not keep up fires where most of them had to stay, and, as previously stated, many had thrown away their overcoats and blankets. Two of the strongest of our gunboats had been disabled, presumably beyond the possibility of rendering any present assistance. I retired this night not knowing but that I would have to intrench my position, and bring up tents for the men or build huts under the cover of the hills.