What’s new about writing? The computer? Well, yes, largely.
In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, Ellen Pollack, director of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, wrote a piece she titled “Ditto Machines to Digital Literature.” In the article, she makes several comments that got me to thinking about what and why I write. The article is a wonderful, and sometimes humorous, romp though the recent history of writing, from the pen (or pencil) to typewriter to computer. While I admire her tenacity in sticking with writing though all those years, I feel I must take issue with a couple of her comments. For example, she says that “technology has changed not only the way we write, but also what we write…,” and much later in the piece she goes on to say, in an apprehensive and somewhat disquieting way, that because of the smooth and almost seamless divisions between writing/research/publishing/marketing/sales to which we have become accustomed in this world of computers/internet/email/instant messaging, she worries that we are “approaching the point at which writing a story feels less like practicing an art than posting an entry to a blog, or worse, generating a spam campaign…”
Okay, I can understand her concern. The computer and the internet, and electronics in general, have changed the way we write. Considerably. Even profoundly. It certainly has changed what we write about. After all, if we didn’t have computers (and all the other parallel worlds it implies), we couldn’t write about computers. That, however, is a minor point. The major point I wish to make is that I disagree substantially with her feeling that writing has become something less than an art form anymore.
I’ve been writing fiction for only about twelve years. I’ve finished two novels and several short stories and I did all of it on a computer, and it’s been fabulous. That may not be a lot compared to writers who have written fifty or sixty novels, but I came to this vocation late in my career. I can’t imagine doing as much as I have on a typewriter. The ability to store text in e-format, to bring it up any time I want, to make changes simply by deleting and writing over, to move text around like pieces on a chess board–all of these maneuvers have made the difference between writing and merely scribbling words on paper. (If I didn’t have a computer, I’d write on paper, and it would take so much longer.)
But at no time have I ever felt that what I wrote was less than an art form. Even typing this blog is not a simple matter of whacking out words to a blog site. Writing is still an art form, pure and simple. I think we make a serious mistake when we confuse writing with the process of writing. My novels took serious time, many, many hours spent in front of a computer writing, revising, rewriting, re-revising, etc., as well as feeding them to critique groups until I’ve gotten them to the point where I feel confident of sending them to an editor for a professional opinion. It’s still an art; I could have written them without a computer, but it would have taken much longer. The computer may have shortened the time to publication, but it did not lessen the creative process I went through to get where I am. The creative process, after all, takes place in the brain, not in the computer. The computer is no different from a pencil, just quicker. (I can type faster than I can write in longhand, and that allows me to put my thoughts down as they come to me.)
In short, don’t be concerned about that computer you sit in front of. It’s not going to degrade your artistic and fertile imagination. The novels we write today are just as noteworthy as those of Dickens or Austen, if not necessarily in the same category. Granted, there’s a lot of crap that comes from computers, and the easy road to publication offered by electronic means will probably flood our world–and our Kindles and Nooks and iPads–with worthless pap, but there will be some gems among the junk, too.