What’s Write For You?

Water Strider
Image by fred1st via Flickr

When the computer era came into my world (we’re talking mid-eighties here) I wasn’t able to compose a sentence without a pen or pencil in my hand. My brain translated thought processes into words only by way of that very rigid, habitual, proprioceptive-cognitive linkage.

I used an ancient “luggable” IBM computer for the first time in 1985 to produce my term paper (on Punctuated Equilibrium) for a class I was taking at Virginia Tech. I did the creating of the paper in long hand on yellow legal pads, then transcribed it in Leading Edge, saved on a 5 1/4 floppy from which I printed it on an impossibly slow pin-feed printer. I can still hear the back and forth buzz of it now. [Another sound of technology–like the hand-shake squelch of the 14.4 baud modem–that only our generation will ever remember.]

I kept coming back to the keyboard attempting to use all my fingers to create “documents.” There was no such thing as email for us then so computers were only fancy typewriters. For years I was not able to both think coherently and type effectively.

That problem persisted through my masters dissertation at UAB in ’87 (Helium Neon Laser for Experimentally Induced Pain…etc etc) though by then my typing speed and accuracy had increased due to competing in Typing Tutor–a typing game I played with our nine year old son, and by which means he learned early on to touch type.

What freed me up was the advent of email sometime around the early nineties. Cut and paste got easier. Casual writing of an email to a friend let my mind flow with fewer restrictions than the formal papers. Spell check got better. And my hands could keep up with my thoughts and I was uninhibited in converting stream of consciousness into stream of verbiage in a toss-away document that only the recipient of my digital letter would ever see.

Email freed me up to type what I thought–as fast as I thought it–and to pre-process syntax more creatively before it reached the interface with the digital paper of the monitor. Email lead to the first personal writing that carried its own reward, that introduced me to the idea that creating with words could be in some ways as satisfying as creating a pleasing photograph.

At this stage in my life at age 62, I could not go back to the legal pads because of the condition of my hands and my longhand writing illegibility. But there are some–including noted writers like Peter Jenkins (Walk Across America) I recently met and had dinner with in Roanoke–who still use pen and ink. Wendell Berry refuses to use a computer for his writing.

Longhand writing certainly flows at a slower pace. It is more unforgiving of mistakes so probably forces greater focus if the writer’s intention before the costly words become visible. This lifehacker piece–A Defense of Writing Longhand [Patrick E. McLean] justifies the notion of keeping the writing process as simple as possible.

Is there a “feral power” in raw prose that becomes blurred if we get it out of our brains and done with too quickly at the keyboard? Are there too many other distractions, typing words that appear perpendicular to our faces on the monitor with the threat of temptations to yield to  distractions just a keystroke away–email notifications, chat notices, remembered to do items to record, checking the weather report…you know what I mean– even when typing in Full Screen mode like I’m doing now in Scrivener?

[Aside: The energy for writing used to come from the mutton chops the author had for lunch. Now it comes from Mr. Peabody’s Coal Train for those millions of us who write electronically. I think sometimes about how our writing lives would change if (when?) the Son of Stuxnet eats our power grid out from under us.]

I would not willingly give up the brain-butt-hands cognitive-mechanical loop that is my current writing habit. And for me, the tools play an important part, letting me order and annotate, color code alternative paragraph revisions saving all my “strike-through” garbage to reconsider before I delete it. I can add marginal comments, and instantly find saved quotes and phrases when a space in a paragraph opens up for them.

I have maybe a dozen projects going at the same time–most just for personal research and interest, some for future blog posts or press pieces or Book Three–and couldn’t imagine juggling that many paper notebooks with their associated sticky notes bristling along the edges. But I guess that is just the way some top-level authors and journalists do it.

Sometimes blogging is an excuse to avoid the more arduous job of actual focused writing to a topic. This is one of those times. I gotta go. Write on…

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. When I am in the bush, beyond the capabilities of electricity and traveling too light for a laptop and several extra batteries, I go back to writing longhand. It is terribly difficult because I’ve gotten so used to editing as I go as we do with word processing programs. Also, now I think as I type, a feat I couldn’t do two decades ago, and find it is difficult to create while I write long hand. Funny how adaptive/unadaptive the human mind can be.

    My son tells me I can use a laptop with a solar charger. Just what I need 300 miles into the wilderness. I’ll continue to bring a pen and pad and suffer with the slow writing.

  2. I found this post very interesting, describing what it’s like to be a writer with the use of such excellent software. It sounds like fun, if you have a way with words as you do!

  3. It still starts in my head. I sketch that out on paper but then create the bulk of my writing on the computer now. I never thought I would be able to do that either. My hands type fast and often slip on the keyboard, bringing up boxes or taking me places I didn’t mean to go.