Oh, The Tools We Will Use.

car repair toolkit

Image by Brenda Anderson via Flickr

“It’s not a challenge; it’s an opportunity!”  At a previous job, whenever the team encountered a technical obstacle, that phrase was part of the general call and response in meetings. The severity of the ‘opportunity’ determined whether the response would be groans or laughter.

Crises sneak up on us. Even the ones we expect are a surprise when they happen, if only in the sense that we didn’t know it would happen so soon, or when it was raining, or when we were about to leave for happy hour. The good thing about obstacles is that they give us stories to tell. For example, I used to drive an older model Chevy. It had a lot of personality, where by ‘personality,’ I mean quirks, and by quirks I mean things that would break at inopportune times. For one thing, the gas tank had a tiny crack in it. If I got too exuberant at the gas station, I’d fill it too high and gas vapor would escape and do fun things like get me kicked out of parking garages.

One rainy afternoon, a section of the tailpipe popped lose from the undercarriage and started dragging on the road.

If you’ve never experienced this, let me assure you that a tailpipe throws off a lot of sparks as it drags across pavement.  It also makes a lot of rattling, clanging noise.  Should this happen, I recommend turning down your music and taking a peek in the driver’s side mirror.

You’ll see what looks like a lot of pretty fireworks. Red and yellow sparklers! And then you will remember your gas tank issue.

When this happened to me, I was miles from home. I was alone and this was years before I gave in and got a mobile phone. I pulled over and got out of the car. The pavement was wet from the rain shower that had just started, and it was starting to get cold. The tailpipe was still held in place at the end of it closer to the middle of the car, but whatever held it up near the bumper was broken. It was clear I wouldn’t be driving with the car as it was. Even if I didn’t have to worry about spontaneous explosion, all the dragging wasn’t improving the tailpipe. How was I going to overcome this particular ‘opportunity’?

The tailpipe was much too hot to touch, so I decided I would walk to a payphone. The first payphone was out of order. The second pay phone was just one cross street away when I tripped over my shoe lace!  As I knelt to tie my shoe, I had an idea. I tied my shoe, called my husband to let him know what happened, and went back to the car. I used the shoe lace to tie the mostly cool and still dangling, tailpipe back up to the chassis.  It wasn’t pretty, and it probably wasn’t safe, but it worked.

Not only did the crisis give me this story to share, but it also illustrates that useful tools can come in unlikely forms. It is like going to a friend’s house, drinking a lot of red wine, and then discovering that the block of imported honey candy needs to be broken with a hammer before you can eat any of it. If car repair can be done with a shoelace and candy can be divided with a hammer, there is nothing to stop us from coming up with inventive solutions to literary ‘opportunities.’

A good way to learn new writing techniques is to read. Then read some more, and make sure at least some of what you read is not in your chosen genre because you may find a shoelace or two you can apply to horror writing in poetry, romance, or science fiction. Notice where you get the biggest payoff for your reading and then go back and try to figure out how the author did it.  When you have a guess, give yourself a writing exercise to apply that technique. My debut novel started as a writing exercise. Sylvia Plath wrote THE MOON AND THE YEW TREE as a writing exercise. Not every practice session will net a publishable work, and not every technique will work with your voice, but every exercise teaches you how to control a powerful craft that is difficult to wield effectively. Most of us start out as hammers smashing candy, but those who are diligent and dedicated gain finesse, confidence, and the ability to conjure miracles. How’s that for turning a challenge into an opportunity?