A helpful, but limited, tool

Writing on a computer is like writing on paper: hard work

April 23, 2010|By Christopher Olander

There has been much speculation about the impact of the digital age on writers — the Internet, computerized writing tools, e-books and portable reading devices, and the inexorable march toward an instant-on, media-saturated society. It is, arguably, a literary and cultural wasteland. Do our post-modern gluttony for instant gratification, a plethora of tools for writers, and the growing irrelevance of anything in print bode well for the creative process? Is there any evidence to suggest that creativity, imagination and invention have benefited from the wonderful gifts bestowed upon us by the technology revolution?

Many good writers today insist on the value of drafting poetry, prose or nonfiction in longhand — with pen or pencil, on ruled paper — at least for the first draft. They abjure the value of speed and accuracy afforded by the computer, and certainly the writing "templates" and computer "tools" in abundant supply. Certainly Proust and Tolstoy used pen and paper, because no other way was available to them. Nabokov wrote his first drafts on 3-by-5 index cards, in no particular order, and then shuffled the "deck" to provide him with the raw material to turn out a first draft that was always handwritten. It was only then that his wife Vera would "type it out" for him to edit and rewrite. Hemingway always wrote on an old Underwood typewriter, with first drafts of manuscripts replete with cross-overs and hand-penned changes.

With technology, the writer can instantly edit, and the computer will check, on the fly, spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax. The technological assist, I submit, should stop there.

There is a valid argument that the twin pillars of the creative writing process — thought and imagination — are damaged by assaults on creativity wrought by the digital age: instant everything, ubiquitous gossip, and the universal availability of, and bombardment with, "facts."

Editors today don't act as muses for brilliant writers, as did Max Perkins for Hemingway or Sylvia Beach for Joyce. The process is author to agent, agent to editor, and most importantly, editor to — of course — the marketing department. If the writer's ultimate objective is to get published, then the end game is clear: write what will sell, so that the editor can say to the marketers "This book is just like X's works" (X being, of course, a writer of blockbuster best-sellers). Quality, let alone inventiveness or uniqueness, is a secondary thought, and actually can get in the way.

The media saturation, the writing tools, the templates, the how-to books, tapes, podcasts — none have anything to do with the creation of a great book. In the case of a novel, they provide no substitute for imagination and invention. For nonfiction, none can replace meticulous research and a sound presentation of subject matter.

I suggest, therefore, that while my life as a sentient human being may be enhanced in many ways by the digital age, the efforts of any writer are not. Good writing is, simply, hard work.

The magic that is possible while staring at a scrap of lined paper, or a computer screen, is neither made possible, nor informed, by the tools, traps, fact bombardment and gossip of the digital age. The creative process — being one small part intellect, a large measure of commitment, a vivid and lively imagination, and the substantial influence of an arguably insane mind — does not require, or even necessarily benefit from, any of these tools. The replacement of candles with incandescent light had a bigger impact on good writing than has the digital deluge.

It is only after the work is done that one should turn to the modern-day enhancements, logistical support and tools to fight through the process of acceptance and recognition. That daunting task essentially has not changed in a millennium. Neither has the magic of a great book.

Christopher Olander, a Baltimore lawyer, is a founder and the CEO of NovelMaker.com, an online community of aspiring writers. His e-mail is cdolander@gmail.com.

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