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?