Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Word Processing and Novelists

From Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac for today (June 14, 2006): "For the first thirty years or so of the history of computers, it was mostly businesses that used them for accounting purposes. But in the 1980s, the word processing powers of computers made them attractive to writers—although Stephen King said that when he first started using a word processor, he lost the ability to pace himself by the number of pages he had written, and his books grew longer and longer. Russell Baker said, 'Computers make writing so painless that the writer cannot bear to stop. On and on the writer goes, all judgment numbed. Before you know it, you've written a book.' Some contemporary writers still don't use computers. Joyce Carol Oates writes all her first drafts in longhand. Don DeLillo still uses a manual typewriter.

"But, the novelist Stanley Elkin called his word processor a 'bubble machine.' He said, 'The word processor enables one to concentrate exponentially; you have absolute command of the entire novel all at once. You can go back and reference and change and fix ... so in a way, all novels written on the bubble machine ought to be perfect novels.'"

I find, like Joyce Carol Oates, that I write my first drafts of most creative writing in longhand. And yet once I have it all typed in, I can see Stanley Elkin's point. And that, ironically, is one reason why I didn't write my first draft of my novel manuscript onscreen. If I could "go back and reference and change and fix" indefinitely during the first draft, I would still be doing that, not with the whole novel, but with the first chapter. Without seeing those real, blank pages to fill and guilt me into working on them instead of tinkering with what came before, I wouldn't have finished.

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