technologies of writing

Over at the Valve, Miriam J/Scribblingwoman asks the members of that group to answer some meme-like questions about writing and reading, each of which would be a good prompt for its own blog post. (Maybe I need to save her list for when I can't think of anything else to write about.) But for today I'm just interested in her first, deceptively simple, question: Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not?

It seems simple, and the easiest way for me to answer would be "yes, because the twin demons of Deadline and Procrastination are right behind me, breathing foul odors and scraping my back with their long talons."

But dig a little deeper and it gets more interesting. What, after all, does "compose" cover? My writing process of the past 14 years looks something like this:
  1. read, write notes longhand
  2. type quotes if I have time; cover books in sticky flags if I don't.
  3. write extensive outline by hand
  4. rewrite outline maybe 3 times to figure out what I'm actually arguing
  5. write pages of crappy first draft on computer
  6. revise by hand on hard copy in several colors of ink: inserting paragraphs, rearranging things, deleting lines, paragraphs, pages of unusable stuff.
  7. transcribe to computer
  8. repeat #6-7 multiple times.
I produce a heck of a lot of text on the computer, but what feels like serious work (or composing) is the outlining and the re/writing that happens after the first draft. I love being at the revision stage of a manuscript, rather than at the blank beginning, because that's where the artistic sense of composing really comes into play. That's where I can see the patterns in my own thoughts revealing themselves, where I can arrange the elements to my liking.

Earlier, more than 14 years ago, I was writing with a very different process, because I didn't yet own a computer. I would take notes, outline, and write the first draft longhand. Do several rounds of edits. Type up a final copy. Be done.

Lots of things are different when you write directly at the computer. The possibility of multiple revisions creates ever more demands for perfection. When I had to type up my papers once, before turning them in, I was limited in how often I could revise. Now the boundaries of my texts are less firm, their lifespan on my desk artifically prolonged. And, as I teach my students, it's easy to be deceived by simply quantity of output: it fills up several pages, it comes out looking nice from the printer, and you might think you have an essay when you don't. For me, if I'm working on something especially challenging, I have to write it out by hand, so I can think more slowly. Scott McLemee's recent article comes close to blaming computer technology for "boring" academic writing, a logical connection I don't agree with. I know plenty of people who write smart, beautiful prose at the keyboard, and plenty of terrible writers attached to their fetish pens and notebooks. The technology you choose inevitably affects your thinking and composing process, your speed of production, your relationship to your final result. But I don't think there's any wholesale answer (Tarzan: pens Good, computer Bad // Jane: computer Good, pens Bad) to be found.

There are plenty of good things about writing on the computer, too. Touch Typing was the best class I ever took in high school -- I'm fast, accurate, and able to get lots done at the keyboard. Writing by hand is slow and kind of painful after 45 minutes. Plus I feel much more comfortable knowing that my previous versions, my deleted sections, my alternative endings, all exist somewhere on my hard drive, neatly organized by file name and date. My computer offers a map of my thought process, which is greatly consoling for someone like me who has a terrible memory. I frequently come across a file of notes about a source that I don't remember reading. Thankfully I personally don't have to keep track of where all those notes are, or I'd really never get anything accomplished.

Lately, post-tenure, I've been trying to reimagine my writing process, to think about what really works for me and what doesn't. I have a sneaking suspicion that I was a more careful writer back in the longhand days -- and I might have been smarter. Yet at the time, I was only writing 20-30 page papers, not 50 pages or 250. It's a lot easier to have well-organized and well-crafted prose when your topic is so limited. But maybe, just maybe, I wonder, I should try going back to doing a first draft longhand. After all, I know people used to write whole books longhand -- I grew up in a house of writers, and one of my fond memories is watching my parents cut-and-paste, old-style. (Scissors, strips of paper on the floor, scotch tape. ) But my desire for efficiency won't let me even think about writing a whole article or chapter longhand, much less a whole book. I live in a world where speed does matter. And an academic world where quantity and speed of output matters. So it's really a question of figuring out where I need the speed and where I can get more value from slowing down, from physically wrestling with my words.

I read lots of writerly blogs and most of us at some point or other talk about these things. Confessing a particular pen, a special writing ritual. McLemee quotes a passage from Walter Benjamin that had a huge impact on me when I was 20ish, basically commanding the serious writer to develop some passions and rituals about the process. I have some of my own (certain pens I use for editing etc) but I'd really be interested in hearing about people's rituals and experiences at the keyboard -- because as long as the longhand folks are the only ones describing their experience as writers, then the writing that so many of us do for many of the day's hours seems not to count.

(I'll write up my own tomorrow, once I've had a chance to think about it some more. I didn't know when I started writing this that I'd wind up giving myself an assignment. Because of course I don't have a stack of other things to do right now...)