Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hands on!

After reading Vicki’s blog entry below, I felt the need to state the opposite side of the argument, not that I’ve ever been known to do something like that.

I will agree on her main point: computers make things much easier. But in a very real way, they may make it too easy. Let me explain.

I have done an ms on a typewriter and I still write out long portions of my novels longhand — and if you knew I was left-handed and the way that I hold my pen, you’d be even more impressed that I bother. Either that, or you’d think I’m completely daft.

As for using the typewriter, I didn’t have a computer at the time. I do feel that one of the best things that the advent of cheap personal computers accomplished was to get rid of typewriters. I won’t go into all the reasons why they made writing extended pieces a major headache, but you can imagine. The problem was inversely amplified by the skill (or lack thereof) of the typist. I fell into the latter category, and I say now, with the choice between using a typewriter or a computer, I’d choose the computer every time — and with nary a nostalgic look backward at the erstwhile mechanical writing marvel.

So why go back even farther and use a pen (a fountain pen in my case) and paper to jot down one’s latest literary marvel? Simply this: I think it causes one to slow down and think more before committing anything to paper (or virtual paper) and that makes a big difference in my prose, I can tell you.

Many years ago, I ran across Robertson Davies as he stalked the halls of the University of Toronto’s Massey College where he was master. Slamming me hard against a wall and lifting me up by my coat collar, he fixed me with a distain-filled eye, his long beard bristling, and snarled, “Do you do your writing using one of those abominable typewriters, or do you write as God intended, by putting pen to paper to record your miniscule thoughts? Well, do you?” I stammered out that I had been accustomed to using a typewriter, a graduation present from my mother as a matter of fact. “Throw it in the garbage!” he roared, anointing my face with spittle as he shook me. “You will never be a real writer otherwise! A writer needs to give himself time to think!” I was terrified for my very life.

He finally let me go after I’d promised faithfully to at least trying the old-fashioned way. And when I did, I found out he was right. My sentences had more clarity, more focus, because I thought of what I wanted to say, then refined it, then examined it and refined it again, and then wrote it down. How many times do you just blast through something on the computer? It’s almost as if your fingers are racing ahead of your mind. It’s a heady, seductive feeling, but I find that it can produce sloppy, undisciplined prose. More often than not, my computer speed-written work yields sentences that I look at later and think, “Who sneaked into my manuscript and wrote that abomination?” My “slow-written” work fares much better. Coincidence? I think not.

I now do all my really important scenes this way, and I’ve been quite happy with the results; my editors have, too. Now, whenever I get into a plot bind, I grab a notebook, find a quiet corner and work it all out, slowly and methodically on paper with my favorite fountain pen. Oftentimes, because I’m being more contemplative, new ideas have time to pop out and then gestate a bit, mellowing before I commit them to paper, rather than just vomiting them into the computer.

Do I keep everything I’ve written this way? No, but 95% of the time it forms the backbone of what does become my final copy.

Try it. You may find it works for you.

NOTE: part of the above is apocryphal...


Dana King said...

I think of myself as a 100% computer writer, but when I'm stuck I revert back to pencil and notebook paper. Just helps me think better.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, dammit! Robertson Davies was right all along. Even though he was a crusty old sod, he knew his craft and wasn't just being a Luddite.

Honestly, I did run into him once at Massey College...literally. I was late for a Crime Writers of Canada meeting (we held them there at the time) and charging down the stairs, I met him. Head on.

It was a very embarrassing moment and he wasn't very gracious about it (he was on the wrong side of the stairs), but I should have been watching and I wasn't. Anyway, his diatribe about writing with a typewriter(!) was in an article I read. I have no idea what this august personage thought about computers, but I can well imagine.

But I do believe he was right.

Mystery Writers Ink Board said...

I too hailed the advent of computers and only published/submitted regularly after getting accustomed to my first.

However, I still return to pen and notebook - or looseleaf - whenever I'm stuck on a story or facing an emotionally challenging scene. My intuitive understanding of the characters seems stronger without the engagement of the brain cells necessary for computer use. Of course some editing occurs during the transfer from page to screen, but my most powerful scenes had their first incarnation in longhand.

Jayne Barnard