June 3, 2010

I’ve realized in the last year how ridiculously lucky I am to live in the twenty-first century.  I would be utterly adrift attempting to write a book at any other historical juncture.  My effort to produce reasonably understandable sentences, while significant in my feeble mind, is dwarfed by the effort of writers who used only a typewriter.  And even they were orders of magnitude luckier than the poor bastards with cramped, calloused and ink-covered hands.

I wrote stories for my grade school classes by hand.  I had no use for editing at the time.  It showed.  Once, we were assigned to write an original creation myth.  I was thoroughly inspired, but the story was to be only two pages.  Half-way through my second page, I knew I needed at least three more pages.  So my handwriting squeezed smaller and smaller into illegibility at the end.  I’m sure Mr. Jackson had lost interest in the myth long before illegibility saved him.

I was among the last people on earth to buy a typewriter out of necessity.  Mine was a Brother.  It dazzled me by sucking ink back out of paper.  My major papers in high school were typed.  By the time I needed to write papers in college, computers had taken over.  I can’t tell you what happened to my typewriter—and not one nostalgic pang has ever rung hollowly in my breast over its absence.

Now I rewrite and edit constantly on my computer.  Calling a piece complete comes with the grudging acknowledgement that “better still” is simply beyond my capacity.  The computer is a built-in secretary that I use to throw notes and drafts into another file, spellcheck, find synonyms and look up the history of typewriters online.  Quite literally, I could never hit “Publish” at all without the computer to help.

And yet thousands of writers have.  Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Austin and Wodehouse, to name but a handful, created works of enduring richness without the first electron moving on a screen.  The organizational skills needed to attempt, let alone accomplish, such a thing are staggering to me.

How on earth did writers purchase, organize and track the volume of paper needed to write a book?  I would need to budget five sheets for every finished page.  A two hundred page book could take 2,000 single-sided sheets to write.  The pulp investment alone would have stopped me in my tracks.

I wonder if writers from the past would envy our technology.  Our process of creativity is so often wrapped up in the medium we use to produce it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if long ago authors would consider computers a distraction to their creative flow.

Yet for us, computers are second-nature and necessary to our process.  Composition can take shape so quickly now.  I can draft a blog post in half an hour.  Others probably take less time and are talented enough not to need editing—ten minutes and they’re done.

It seems that stream of consciousness writing isn’t an exercise any more.  It’s how we write.  One can easily produce five hundred pages without a vision for the story or mapping out the scenes and characters.  We can organize later.  Understanding the research we need to do before writing is no longer required; we can research on the fly.

So I am awestruck.  In 2010, we zip across the country in air-conditioned planes, wondering with habitual detachment how anyone made such a journey without even the benefit of roads.  Similarly, I cannot remotely comprehend the superiority of foresight, clarity and shear talent possessed by great and prolific writers of the past.


I started this post because I hadn’t updated my reading lately.  I finished The Mating Season (P.G. Wodehouse) and The Tempest (Shakespeare).  Both were enjoyable and unlikely to be improved upon by useless commentary from me.  I’ve just started A Man on the Moon (Andrew Chaikin), which recounts the history of the Apollo space flights.

Other tidbits I learned from Wikipedia along the way:

  • 1829 is when the first operating typewriter was patented in Britain.
  • The QWERTY keyboard arrangement was introduced in 1874.  Its layout may have been developed to spread out the most commonly used letters, reducing the likelihood of clashing internal typewriter parts.
  • “Typewriter” is the longest word you can type in one row of a QWERTY keyboard.

One comment

  1. Do you know, I actually knew that about the QWERTY layout. I mean, that it was arranged to keep the keys from interlocking. My Mom wondered if, now that there are no longer keys to interlock, they would re-configure the keyboard to make it easier to use. That didn’t (and doesn’t) make much sense to me, but then again, I’ve never tried typing with any other arrangement. Still, I think it’s even less likely than the US going metric.
    Oh, and since you brought him up….I really liked Mr. Jackson. I wonder what he’s up to now.

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