Tuesday, June 4, 2013


I'm curious how new writing technology--from pens to typewriters to computers--has affected literature over the years. The typewriter allowed us to write faster and with less physical strain. The computer allowed us to edit and revise with a level of ease and fluidity earlier writers could never have dreamed of. Even the laptop changed things, allowing us to break free from the office and desk and write wherever we felt most inspired.

All of these also came with their own drawbacks. The typewriter introduced new distractions to the peaceful repose of handwriting--the noise of the keys, the loading of the paper, and the constant wrangling of the carriage for each and every line. The computer eliminated mechanical distractions while introducing a whole buffet of digital ones. And the laptop put us in writing environments with the potential to distract us even more--noisy coffee shops and the too-hot, too-cold, too-bug-infested outdoors.

Despite the costs, it's hard to argue with the benefits. Today's writers have a vastly more direct, more efficient and more flexible path from brain to page than the writers of antiquity did. But what are the effects? Because there have to be effects. It's impossible that such a radical shift in writing method could fail to alter the nature, style, and perhaps even quality of the writing itself.

As a modern writer raised with computers, the idea of writing a novel by hand--a massive pile of paper covered in wrist-breaking, barely legible scrawl--is unfathomable. Even the thought of typing one makes me collapse in despair. If I knew that deleting this sentence would require a laborious process of markups and notations, and that I wouldn't be able to hear how the paragraph sounds without it until I'd retyped the whole manuscript, would I still delete it? Or would I sigh, "Good enough," and leave it in?

Or--would I be more careful with my words? Would I plan further ahead? Would I approach the chapter with a stern clarity of intent that's foreign to my modern "let it flow" mindset? The completely paralyzed Jean-Dominic Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking one eye when a nurse spoke the letter of the alphabet he wanted--his only method of communicating. He had no way to edit once he had delivered his words, so he was forced to "write" and "edit" entire chapters in his head before the nurse came to take dictation. It's hard to imagine a less efficient, less fluid writing method than this, and yet The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a gorgeous book, showing no evidence of the difficulty with which it was written.

When I read a book, I like to imagine the writer writing it. Did he scratch it out with a feather quill in a lamp-lit study with six screaming babies in the bedroom? Did she tap it into an iPad in a busy coffee shop with Maroon 5 in the background? I want to be more aware of the machinery my thoughts pass through on their way to the page. I want to understand my tools and the hands that wield them and someday master both.

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