My Japanese friend Saiko is, for obvious reasons, an expert at cooking rice. Saiko has probably prepared enough rice in her lifetime to fill a warehouse. We were talking about this recently, and she told me that after decades of using an electric rice cooker, she’s going back to a method that involves literally fire, water, steam and a whistle. There’s a lesson in this.

Water and rice go in the base of what’s essentially a ceramic teapot for rice. She puts it on the stove. When the water boils, the steam causes the cooker to whistle, and she turns off the fire. 15 minutes later, the rice is done. No electronics, nothing digital, nothing modern. She’s found that the best way to make rice is the exact same way her grandmother did.

Saiko is on to something. After several decades of making my living as a professional writer, I’ve found that simple tools are the best. Without getting too romantic about it, going back to the basics allows me to focus more on what’s inside my head and less on the device that’s getting my ideas down. In the long run, it kind of gets in the way.

  • For editing, I use a Ticonderoga #2 lead pencil. This is exactly what I used in 6th grade.
  • To sharpen it, I use a hand-cranked pencil sharpener bolted to a beam in my office. This is exactly what I used when I was in 6th grade, too.
  • For line editing, or close work, I first print out the document, then go through it line by line with a steel ruler and a pencil. 
  • I heat my house with a wood stove. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is shovel the cold ashes out of the stove. I then split some kindling, get it going, leave the door to the stove open until the fire really gets cranking, and go make coffee. My heating mechanism is literally an iron box with burning wood in it. The ritual of this adds something important to my mornings, I think.

Writing, or any kind of knowledge work, takes a lot of energy. While it’s not unimportant to be efficient, the quality of output is also paramount, because fixing stuff takes at least as much effort as writing it in the first place. Which means that the process can’t be too fast. Simple tools are usually slower, but they also require more time and care, and the work shows it.

Early in my career, I avoided starvation by working as a night shift word processor in a law firm. Lawyers would literally slide tapes or edits through a slot in the door, like feeding time in a zoo. At the peak of my game, I could consistently type at 120 words a minute or so, which is fine if you’re typing someone’s dictation. But if you’re writing – at least if I am – often what comes out if the process is too efficient and quick is kind of crappy.

Simple tools slow you down. They create more time and mental space to think, to judge, to decide that there’s maybe a better way to phrase something. If you’re cranking along on a keyboard, by the time you realize that, the words are already down and the hell with it.  This doesn’t happen if you’re using a pencil.

The patron saint of simple tools is one of my personal heroes, a fellow named Dick Proeneke. Proeneke decided, at the age of around fifty, to move to the middle of the Alaskan woods, build a cabin with very basic hand tools, and live there alone for the rest of his life, which he did. His journals are amazing – he would spend an entire day doing something like carving a spoon. But the person behind them was calm, happy, almost serene, living a life basically out of the eighteen century. And his writing is straightforward, unadorned, and beautiful.

In one of his journals, Proeneke wrote about what he had learned about hiking up mountains, which he did a great deal of. The secret, he realized, is to climb at a slow enough pace that you can keep it up for hours. I think the same approach applies to writing. Speed isn’t everything, and in the end, it may not be anything. Slow … down.

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