UPDATE: since originally writing this post I’ve started to use notebooks, loose-leaf paper, a laptop and my desktop computer in various parts of the process.
UPDATE 2 (16/8/12): I’ve now sold the typewriter, and use a combination of cloud-based syncing of text files and a dead-tree notebook for developing ideas.
I listened to Andrew Marr’s Start the Week of 14th April, featuring Salman Rushdie, Bernard O’Donoghue, Mike Leigh and Margaret Reynolds with interest. Of particular note was a brief discussion related to use of computers for creative writing, and a brief touch on reviews.
I’ve recently gone back to using a manual typewriter. It’s a joy to use and somewhat romantic, if rather unforgiving of mistaks. However, the words I type on this machine – and be in no doubt, it is a machine, with springs and cogs and pulleys and a little bell that goes ting when I get to the end of the line – are concrete. When I’ve typed something, I have a first draft. A piece of paper with beautiful letters in black ink that are physically impressed upon it. When I subsequently type it into my beloved Mac, it’s second draft. I make decisions. Changes things. Improve. But that first draft remains, to be stored somewhere for future reference, mistaks and all.
With the computer we have entered a digital dark age. An age from which there is no escape in the short term, other than for a few analogue lovers such as myself. While there is no denying that computers are now essential to life, their impact is not wholly positive.
There are no first drafts of manuscripts with pencil scribblings to mark corrections or ideas that have popped into the author’s head afterwards. There are no hand-written love letters in stamped, post-marked envelopes. No correspondence between relatives. No address books. No diaries. We have text messages, emails, blogs, myspace, youtube, facebook, chat rooms and forums, for which we’ve developed new languages and methodologies to communicate with the minimum of effort.
But it’s all at the mercy of the delete button, and at the mercy of the sever on which the zeros and ones nestle against each other.
This relates not only to text, but also to the visual records we keep. No longer do we have photographs of people with the top of their head missing, or which feature some vague shape in the underexposed darkness: we take them digitally, then crop, zoom, and delete those we don’t like. This way we edit our lives, keep what we want and all remove trace of that which doesn’t suit us.
Through these processes we are distorting ourselves. In a thousand years’ time, when we’re all long gone and human society – if it still exists – has changed in every conceivable way, all that will be left of our brief rub along the surface of this planet is the fragments of plastic we’ve buried underground, and wonderment at our dependency on oil. Records of our thoughts and feelings will be minimal, and those that do remain will be untruths.
March 31st’s Start the Week featured Maggie Gee talking about going to university to study English, creative writing, and included discussion on whether or not writing can be taught. This kind of thing really pisses me off, frankly. The only way – the only way – you’re going to learn how to write is by sitting in front of a computer (or preferably a typewriter, then a computer) for a minimum of 15 years and doing it. And even then there’s no guarantee. University? Good for a laugh and treading the first steps towards adulthood, but other than that a complete waste of time and money in my view – most particularly for those who don’t know what you want to do when they finish. (OK, I’ll admit that if you want to be a vet, a doctor, a physicist or some such, then university might help – but not in the case of the creative arts.)