Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Writer’s Use of Technology

For Father’s Day, I got a shiny new iPod, something I enjoyed playing music on immediately. I felt pretty hip, finally putting my MP3 player away and catching up, technologically speaking, with my students at Pomfret School. Then I realized one could buy audio books—yes, it took four months to figure that out; I’m not the quickest technological study—and I was elated.

Each time I discover and embrace a technological advancement, I think somewhat guiltily of E.B. White’s wonderful essay, “Removal” from One Man’s Meat (Tilbury House Publishers). “We shall stand or fall by television of that I am quite sure,” White wrote in a 1938 column for Harper’s. “It must have been two years ago that I attended a television demonstration at which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another. I recall being more amused by what was happening in the tangible room where I sat than by what appeared in the peephole of science.”

So what would Mr. White say about my iPod? Just another peephole of science?

Maybe not. After all, in White’s later years he was a salt-water farmer in Maine, so he might have understood my own New England sensibilities, the first being that I love to save money. As a longtime audio-book (unabridged only, thank you very much) junkie, the iPod savings on some titles are huge. The CD version of Moby-Dick is $28 on Amazon.com; it can be downloaded for $12 through iTunes. After all, I may be an iPod neophyte, but at least I’m a cheap one.

More importantly, the iPod may actually help my own fiction. What better way to study voice, than to hear a text read aloud? You want to learn about tension and pacing in fiction? Listen to Will Patten read a James Lee Burke novel. Also, I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the free-weight section of my gym last week listening Donald Sutherland’s whiskey-voiced recitation of The Old Man and the Sea. Hamlet is next. My iPod allows me to get through more books. Is listening to a text the same as a close-reading or a detailed literary analysis of one? I know it is not. But Stephen King says he reads 80 books a year and claims he ought to read more. Given my day job, I will probably never get through 80 books in a year, but the iPod might be my best bet.

There’s another piece of technology I use sparingly but often share with novice writers. Microsoft Word’s spell check (F7) has a setting listed under “options” as “show readability statistics.” This option allows a writer to note, among other things, the percentage of passive sentences in her text and to learn the average length of each sentence. I urge my students try run this check, claiming (and it never fails) that someone will come to our next class and admit that their paper averaged 25 or more words per sentence.

Some technological advancements are, as White was quick to point out, nothing more than “peepholes into science.” Yet iPod’s audio books and Microsoft Word’s readability statistics have served me well.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I found what John Corrigan writes to be exciting advice. Arguably, everyone needs a little help "reading" all the novels, self-help tomes and periodicals to keep up with current events, so what better way than by listening to some while you're doing something else?

Thanks for the tip about the F7 "readability statistics" option as well. If you subscribe to the creative writing philosophy of "keeping it going" and never stopping to perfect anything the first time around, this is a great editing tool.

S. Dumont-Bengston
Ridgefield, CT