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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  1. Oh, lovely. Exactly the question that ought to be asked. I'll post it to my writing group, too.

    In college in the early 1990's I did a poll for a class that aimed to determine if there was a correlation between the enjoyment of writing (the intellectual activity) and the enjoyment of writing (the physical activity). Hardly anybody I was in school with had a computer at the time, and nobody had a typewriter. We were at that odd in-between moment when our work was expected to be executed on computer, but almost all of that work was done on borrowed (library or communal dorm) computers. Consequently, we all did work by hand and also on the computer, depending on the level of procrastination we indulged in.

    At that time there was indeed a correlation between the enjoyment of the physical act and the enjoyment of the intellectual act. But I don't know if that would be the case now. More than half the members of my writing group (which is more than 30 people) bring their laptops whenever we gather.

    For what it's worth, Virginia Woolf hand-wrote her novels, edited in process as she typed them out in the afternoons, and then retyped a page or so at a time as she edited the typed drafts (rather than retyping the entire typescript to see the impact of a changed paragraph). It was a messy process, and after her death, when her husband went to gather up her legacy to honor the gifts she specified in her will, he had great difficulty finding whole manuscripts with which to honor her requests. But it worked for her...

  2. What made you think about that? What was the impetus?

  3. Personally I enjoy writing with a pen, my laptop and also my typewriter. I've found that with every method I get a different 'sound' to my writing. I keep journals filled with my scratchy handwriting of new ideas, questions to myself about my characters, and dialog that pops into my head when I'm going about my life. The laptop is where I write my novels, mostly because the way I write requires a lot of editing and Copy&Pasting plus it is what I started my adventure as an author on so I am most comfortable working on it. The typewriter came much later; I had always liked them and played with them when I was little, but one day after weeks of writer's block everything started pointing to typewriters. So of course not wanting to deny the voices in my head, I found one on EBay and fell in love with it. When I started doing some stream-of-consciousness typing on it my words turned into one of my books I hadn't written in in months!
    So what I guess I'm trying to say is that I believe all forms of writing have their places in this world and you just have to find the right way to express your soul and even if you want to carve it into slate you should do it how you want and not care about what others think because as long as you are happy with what you have written, nothing else matters.
    Okay, well I got a little off track cause when I clicked REPLY I was only planning on telling you that the way you write is so poetic and a real inspiration for me even when you only post a question to your blog, but I got a little carried away . . .

    -Kylie Webster-

  4. One day the transference of plots and images and characters will occur seemlessly, one would hope, between humans, although given the current state of affairs more likely between human and machine. Still, given our long history of oral traditions and the face to face communication that formed such a vital part of humanity, there is always a chance. My stories sometimes come in dreams. I once dreamt I was a temp queen and when my castle was overrun with zombies (my fault, I was a lousy temp worker), the cure was in the form of a potion I had to drink and then "administer" by allowing them to eat me.

  5. It's interesting you said that. When I was 13/14 my parents got me my first computer (I'm 30 now), up to that point I wrote everything, all my stories in diaries and notebooks. Anyhow, I decided to start writing a new story to on my computer to celebrate the fact that I got it. I was very happy with my story and probably more that half way through it when my computer died a horrible death. Since I didn't back my story up to ( get ready for this) a floppy disk I have lost my story forever. I never actually got over it. I still remember the story and I use laptop all the time now but it's like something's been taken away from me. My characters died that day. I think that really did affect me. Sounds silly I know but it was traumatic. A little part of me disappeared that day. As a psychology student I could really overanalyse this now so I will stop. Going back to it it's convenient, useful, can't imagine how they used to do it but its not the same to write on the computer. A

  6. I was infected with the writing bug when I was eight years old. Wrote a story about Jesus being a robot with intentions to rule over the earth. Subsequently my teacher sent me to the school counselor.

    On that note, I can recall working through most of the various methods of writing. Longhand, Shorthand (which I can no longer read any of my notes that I took in this manner), typewriter (IBM Selectric II, I think. weighed more than me.), a KayPro portable computer, and many others.

    Of all of these, the one that I had the most hope for and what let down the hardest on, was speech to text. I remember watching Adama (in the 1978 Battlestar Galactica) dictating his reports into the computer and looking forward to that day. Fast forward a couple decades and Dragon Naturally Speaking is good, but there are more times than I care to mention that I will look at what was typed and think, "WTH was that???"

    Today I am happy sitting on my PC, aggravating my newly found arthritis, and trying to get some foothold in the writing industry.

    There are times that I do miss that "clunkity-clunk" of my old IBM and Sears typewriters. They were good beasties for the time they worked for me.

    One event that pops into mind when I think about those days is when I was writing a term paper at about 2am. The next afternoon I had a letter stuck to my apartment door from the manager that said that my typing was keeping the neighbor below me and next door to me up at night and to please refrain from typing after 10pm.

    Ah... the good old days.

    Sorry of this was a little off topic or wandering. You just caused me to have some good memories.

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