Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Writing Technology

Last weekend's NYTimes Magazine had an essay by Virginia Heffernan about Scrivener, a writing software. It looks pretty lovely: you can shuffle notes on it, and pin stuff to a pretend corkboard, and use an outline. Nice! In my dark hours of confusion and desk mess and despair, I might come to believe that a tidy and friendly virtual environment would make all the difference. It wouldn't, though.

I believe that a writer's tools do shape the writing a little bit, or at least the writing experience. Microsoft Word's thesaurus is a terrible one, for example, and I hate to think of all the millions of people out there relying on it for just the right word, only to find a small handful of inadequate ones instead. And using a word processing program is a different experience from typing drafts on a typewriter or scrawling them in notebooks -- it makes it easier to move stuff around and edit, but it also makes your writing look finished even when it's not.

I wrote my first stories in ballpoint pen in a stenographer's notebook, the kind with a spiral on top. That's the kind my sixth grade teacher wanted us to use, perhaps because they were journalisty. The binding didn't get in your way when you wrote. In high school I learned to type, but never felt comfortable composing on a typewriter; I'd write in a notebook and type out the final draft.

I started using a computer in college, down in the library basement. The program was called NewWord, and I saved the stories on 5-inch floppy disks. I still composed in notebooks (brown paper cover, college ruled). After college I drove across the west with my boyfriend in a car loaded with everything I owned, including all those floppy disks with my stories on them. In Arizona it got really hot (115 degrees) and we had no air-conditioning in the car (still don't, sigh) and so I stuck the disks in the ice-filled cooler. That night in the motel room I fished them out from among the floating cheese and apples and propped them around the room to dry, but they were ruined. That was when I first started to realize there was some danger in this new technology. I could have retyped the stories from my paper copies, but I never did.

In grad school there was a lot of writing to do, so I bought my own computer and started to compose directly on it, using Microsoft Word. Those were good times: I had a whole new and different voice, too. Was this because of composing on the computer, or just because I'd been out of school for a couple of years and was a different person? The weird thing was, once I switched to composing on a screen, I couldn't do it on paper any more.

This worked for me for many years, until we got the internet and I found myself distracted by all the interesting "research" just a few clicks away. My friend had this nifty thing called an AlphaSmart -- it's a sturdy little low-tech electronic typewriter that stores your writing until you plug it into your computer, where it pours your work into a word processing program for you to edit. You can only see a few lines of your writing at once, which can be a good thing. I bought one, and have enjoyed it for the last couple of years; they've been kind of dry years writing-wise, but I don't think it's the AlphaSmart's fault.

Switching technologies like this has made me more flexible about writing in general. In the last year I've gone back to writing in notebooks, too, just cheapo dollar-store notebooks and pens or pencils or whatever. (The Individual Voice has some interesting commentary on Moleskine notebooks, which are my favorites and beautiful, maybe too beautiful.) It's easy to get caught up in the perfectness of your tools, but it's better not to imbue them with magical, creativity-inducing powers.

Or is it?? Sometimes I think, If only I had one of those nice, perfect brown-paper college notebooks, I'd know exactly how to proceed with this novel/thing. In Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, the protagonist only uses brightly colored markers to write her historical romances -- apple green was one, I remember. There's something awfully appealing about that. Does a little magical thinking help the creative process? What do you think?

12 comments:

myles said...

An English novelist, I can't recall who, insisted on using yellow legal pads, for which he had to send away to America. Joan Collins (of all the people to turn up in Ward Six) was in Australia last year and was thrilled to find the Pilot Fineliner, a nice-enough felt-tip pen. So thrilled was she that she bought several hundred to take back to LA.
I agree that the method, or the machine, can have a bit of Juju over the writing process. I switch between handwriting and word processing as the mood takes me, and the results are often different. Now I rough things out on paper and write the actual fiction on computer. Computers, of course, are great for revising and getting things down quickly, but Lordy, do they encourage procrastination!
So now I use Scrivener -- and it's great. Endlessly flexible, it allows me to organise my stories and research and notes and doodles in one place. Very well designed, too. It has none of the bloat that plagues Microsoft Word, it's logically organised, and you can block out all other computery distractions. My "writing page" is just a white paper on a black background, and it scrolls up like a typewriter.
Of course, I still spend a lot of time in the stationery stores, thinking "ooh, this is a nice notebook for writing stories. Or maybe this one? Or this one?" and so on, until the stories themselves are forgotten.

jgodsey said...

I wish I could take handwritten notes, keep a journal or sit in a pub and write million dollar novels on legal pads..but alas...i can't write legibly as fast as i can type. I also can't revise on the fly and have usable text. Once the WP was invented I found my salvation.

jrlennon said...

I've posted about this before, but I kind of can't stand the sight of my own handwriting...it connects the work too powerfully to my actual self, and kind of embarrasses me. I did write one novel (On The Night Plain) on legal pads, though, and re-drafted onto a typewriter.

Scrivener looks pretty cool, but it's Mac only. I use OpenOffice on my PC...much faster than Word, fewer crashes, and you can save in .doc format for the rest of the world, if you must.

Someday my writing PC will have Linux on it. That's how freaking geeky I am.

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing Norman Mailer (whose name I always seem to mistype as Normal Mainer: another potential result of writing on a computer) on Charlie Rose from a couple years ago, and he mentioned how his writing would be different had computers been around in his early days. Who knows, maybe The Executioner's Song could have been another 1,000 pages longer; maybe he only stopped where he did because he got tired of depressing those stubborn Underwood digits.

bhadd said...

Magic should help the creative process in my opinion. Magic black blue red white.

Anonymous said...

I was just reading that Richard Powers "wrote" his National Book Award book, the Echo Maker, using voice recognition software: Dragon Natually Speaking.

He's big into brain/bio issues, and thinks that the process of typing is too "artificial."

My prediction: we'll all be speaking our books soon. Forget writing.

Lila said...

There's also this nifty software that basically turns your computer into a word processor with no pesky distractions: http://hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom

If I ever wrote anything anymore I would definitely rely on it.

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted a word processing program that would make what you were currently writing look like it would look if it were already published somewhere famous. For example, if you were writing the perfect New Yorker story, the program arrange your words into long, skinny columns complete with little doodles in random places and an occasional pithy cartoon or an ad for "The Contented Cat Pin". Or, if you prefer, make it look like your story made it to Best American: same font, page headings, italicized title, etc. It would be great motivation and you could compare your story with the length, pagination and pacing of your favorite working and/or dead authors. Plus, it'd be great for faking out your friends.

jrlennon said...

I have to admit, that would be awesome.

AliciaABeale said...

For some reason, I can't engage into writing my stories if I start typing rather than writing long hand. There's something to the process which makes me feel slightly OCD because some stories require pencil and others forced me to only use blue ink pen. Later I do first editing on the computer, then second editing by long hand again, and then final draft on Microsoft Word. A friend of mine has said OneNote software is worth looking at.

TIV: the individual voice said...

I need something new and different because I'm not getting anything done. The only writing I'm doing is on my blogs, which have the same feel as writing in a cheap notebook -- no offense blogosphere -- but what I mean is, it's not of import, I say whatever I want, it's nice for spontaneity and short pieces, like sound bytes, but I'm ready for some more serious writing. Problem is I'm hooked on the colorful page designs blogging offers. Have always found writing with markers seductive, gel pens in black notebooks. I could close a blog down from the public, but the actually writing on the chinzy little post entry form on Blogger at least provides no joy. Scrivener? I've been thinking of moving over to MAC, like everyone else in my household. The only reason I got a PC in the first place was to keep the rest of them away from my computer, and also it had a psychotherapy billing program I needed, but now don't. I'm checking out scrivener. And thanks for the Moleskine Mentione...

Rachel said...

I'll handwrite my first drafts of poems--second drafts go right onto the computer, where I print out subsequent copies a billion times and write all over them. I agree, word processing is excellent but it makes everything look too finished. I always keep all my hard copy drafts, just in case.