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Amber Paulen


2 September 2011


This past week I was doing some polishing, editing a short story that I then submitted out into the microcosm of literary magazines. And when I was done I started thinking along a line that I have gone down before: How much has the word processor changed, not only the way we write, but the way we finish what we write? The word processor allows us to change and re-change words, sentences, paragraphs or the whole shebang if we want to, in seconds. The decision to switch around the story’s furniture can be taken back in an instant. We write in a state of impermanence until we can finally say: BASTA!

The typewriter, on the other hand, reeks of permanence. Sure I can go back and X-out or scribble above but if you’re writing a final draft to be submitted, there can be none of that nonsense and every page must shimmer cleanly. There was less second-guessing then, I think, more dependence on knowing and instinct. (or maybe I’m referring to my own habitual requestioning when I work on the computer.) And as for longhand I image it as the most spacious option, for the effort of writing the word must be worth it by its end.

So, I’m going to entertain myself with some comparisons. Longhand is D.H. Lawrence and his The First Lady Chatterley, like all the Chatterley’s, it was written in an umbrella pine forest.

Parkin, on the other hand, after coming back to the hut where she had been, and sitting there in silence, his hands folded between his knees, gazing out into the night at the stars that seemed slippery between the boughs of the oaks and seemed, somehow, like the body of a woman; after gazing a long time motionless and thoughtless into the night, as if all the night were woman to him: at last lay down on the straw in the hut, and wrapped in a soldier’s blanket, slept immovable. —DH Lawrence, The First Lady Chatterley

Reading that I can see Lawrence’s hand moving swift across his page, the words set down as they come. I can also not imagine such a sentence passing a contemporary editor, or even a teacher of creative writing courses. The sentence is raw.

On the typewriter is Henry Miller (of course):

The King James Version was created by a race of bone-crushers. It revives the primitive mysteries, revives rape, murder, incest, revives epilepsy, sadism, megalomania, revives demons, angels, dragons, leviathans, revives magic, exorcism, contagion, incantation, revives fratricide, regicide, patricide, suicide, revives hypnotism, anarchism, somnambulism, revives the song, the dance, the act, revives the mantic, the chthonian, the arcane, the mysterious, revives the power, the evil, and the glory that is God. All brought into the open on a colossal scale, and so salted and spiced that it will last until the next Ice Age. —Henry Miller, A Saturday Afternoon

One of Miller’s famous lists to which there is some sense among the chaos, thought out, but still left to its own devises as evidenced by the groupings, the connections that come from a flowing mind.

The Word Processor:

Kitty came toward him slowly—poured toward him, really, that was how smoothly she moved in her sage green dress, as if the jerking awkwardness of walking were something she’d never experienced. She poured toward the general and took his hand as if to shake it, smiling, circling him a little, seeming embarrassed to the point of laughter, like they knew each other too well to shake hands. —Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

So I tried to pick some sentences that evoke a similar motion forward through the words and the sentences do move forward very smoothly. Yet I can’t help feeling a slight control in the above quote that seems very signature of the contemporary writer. For even if the writer is aiming for lack-of-control, that too seems controlled, a device. A small percentage of the contemporary writer’s need for literary tricks—change of tense, change of pronouns in a single piece—probably comes from the sterility of the word processor environment. Because we can sharpen our sentences to such a degree, we have creative energy for other things?

Ultimately it is not how or where or onto what we write that counts. Influences are infinite, unable to be quantified or even frayed out one from the other, so word processor vs. typewriter vs. longhand is just another minute one of them.



Commentary for Polishing


1 On Saturday 03 September 2011 John Ryan Brubaker wrote:

I have many similar feelings about the darkroom versus photoshop, or even just film and digital in photography. Too many opportunities for manipulation can strangle my process, I guess the perfectionist in me can’t decide something is complete if my options are infinite. Two ways out of it for me… limited editability and limited timeframes.

2 On Saturday 03 September 2011 Amber wrote:

I should think about drawing up some limits, knowing what they are in the word processor world. Something that doesn’t come naturally.

3 On Monday 05 September 2011 Matt Blick wrote:

Very interesting post Amber – (I came here via a tweet from Michael Gungor). I think you’re spot on about the limits of the medium hindering second guessing and I’d argue that limiting your options is more likely to produce better art. I’d second John’s comment (“Too many opportunities for manipulation can strangle my process”) and his solution (“limited editability and limited timeframes”)

I’m a songwriter and I came to a similar conclusion from studying the way the Beatles worked – so I guess this applies to more than prose and photography!

Here’s my thoughts http://beatlessongwriting.blogspot.com/2010/03/blessed-are-limited.html

4 On Monday 05 September 2011 Amber wrote:

Blessed are the limited! Great food for thought, thanks Matt. I agree with both of you, I’m going to start some limiting on the computer as I again move on through the process. Thanks!

5 On Monday 05 September 2011 Passion Scribe Lyriic wrote:

I too, came here via a tweet from Michael Gungor —and that’s pretty weird, because I ordinarily wouldn’t have checked it out.

(What I’m gonna write, has different shades to it, but conveys the same picture — at least that’s what I’m aiming for! lol haha)

I’m heaps glad I read this article, because I believe it has thrust me into something (I don’t quite know what that is yet, however). I say that, because God spoke something to me, just several hours prior to reading:
“The person who is convinced that their life is in full bloom, says to the world that I have nothing left to give.”

I’ve spent some time musing over these words of His, and so that’s when I decided to check out this article. I had to re-read some parts a few times over because I wanted to make sure I was understanding it properly, as well as place the various points raised, into the different aspects of my own writing, and life. What John said, “…I guess the perfectionist in me can’t decide that something is complete, if my options are infinite.” almost leaped out at me. One of art’s great (and sometimes subtle) threats, is restrictions. I don’t mean in the sense that one cannot craft awesomeness in spite of limitations; but what I speak of is the issue of control. One of the most liberating things on the earth today is art. I’m talking; raw, in the flesh type art. From dance and motion, to painting, writing, sculpting, and so many other things. It’s a very fine line between ‘guidance’ and control. I tend to be in favour of the greats who don’t believe they’re too great to continue(or go back to) learning.

The process for the ‘artsy types’ is not easily defined. And we can see that for all the convenience offered by word processing (which I’m totally in favour of), in its attempt to frame the liberating flow of art, it can stifle it. John said it best, “Too many opportunities for manipulation can strangle my process.”
Notice he didn’t say manipulation in itself ruins things. Because like I’ve said, guidance is sweet, and nobody ever truly ‘arrives’. Art (as with many other incredible things in life), is not so much a destination, as it is a journey. So John actually said that “too many opportunities” is what tends to hinder the free-flow of art’s natural process.

I don’t always agree that limiting our options produces better art. As a Christian, one theme that resonates with me, is that God’s Heart is for His people to go from “glory to glory”. And we see this trend in the human race. Look at the world we live in today, compared to the world 500 years ago. Technological advances are just one thing, of so many. Even, had it not been for electricity, we wouldn’t have technology. And sometimes, I worry that because we’ve done things in a certain way, deviating from this ‘norm’ subtracts from the authenticity. But it’s not always true. I’m stoked about the advent of e-books, but (for me personally), nothing compares to holding a book in the flesh, and the smell of its pages. But that doesn’t mean I believe e-books discount the reading experience in any way; because it doesn’t.
And isn’t that what art is about anyway? Exploring new pathways, venturing out, being unorthodox? Maybe..just maybe, we perhaps fear leaving the shores of familiarity sometimes, because there is this subconsciously(sometimes conscious) perceived threat to what already exists. I believe that ‘to each his own’ on this matter; but I’m most certainly convinced that we don’t have to forcefully limit our options in order to produce better art. Some of the great art of past generations were not conceived in an atmosphere of self-imposed limitations. These admirable artists seized what was available to them (in their day), and made the best of it. We mustn’t fall into the mentality that their limits have to be our own, in order to produce great works like they did. I’m sure we’ve all heard accounts of former artists who broke boundaries. To produce great art, I personally believe that we creatively, and innovatively utilize what’s available to us, now, in our own day; and then endeavour to break beyond these current-day limitations. Isn’t that one thing we learn from the greats of a former time?

Self-imposed limitations can still be a manipulation; much like word processor’s auto-correct and spell-check somewhat interfering at times, with our intuitive sense to second-guess in our own unique ways. New generations will look upon us, and perceive our present-day ‘abundance’ as their own limitations. It’s bizarre, yes..but it’s the truth of posterity. Is there a balance between self-discipline, and self-imposed limitations? I honestly don’t know. I do agree though, that we can sometimes discount the authenticity of writing through technological advances; not necessarily because of the practice, but rather in the basic principles that make writing, writing. To each his/her own, for it’s on each one of us, to explore whether or not we can embrace what’s now, and what’s yet to come, without altogether negating what has been —and also explore HOW this is possible.

Vincent Odulele said something a few years ago that has stuck with me:
“Excellence is not having the best, but making the best of what you have.”

In the world we live today, it’s likely that there will just always be an abundance of options. To be able to navigate our way through, we need to start with understanding our unique voice. The multiplicity of options isn’t the problem, it is what we do with them. And these options have to be considered in the context of our own unique voice; not necessarily to always source options that comply with our voice (for familiarity isn’t complex; it’s comfortable), but also the options that challenge us to step out of existing comfort zones —for growth, and for newness.

Each person’s art, is an opportunity to peer into reality through their own unique lenses. Word processor came from a person (or group of persons) who held some beliefs. One main belief I suspect they held, was this notion of ‘proper writing’. It is a mindset embraced by society on pretty much a global scale. Just look at how much ‘proper’ writing we learn in the classroom, in comparison to creative styles of writing. Poetry, and creative writing is treated like a periphery, like a special treat we get once in a while. The academics and the intellectuals have their style of writing. But that still is all it is; their own style. I fear that artistic writers have been ‘cheated’ by word processor…hmm, or maybe not. What if it’s a good thing that we don’t actually have technology that can embrace the reality of an artistic writer. Isn’t that what artists seem to have a name for? Not fitting in perfectly. . .
Furthermore, is this even possible? Isn’t it a good thing that the likelihood of there ever being such a technology, is pretty slim? Art is more than a journey, it’s an adventure with almost endless depths to explore! Perhaps the time has come for us to make that distinction between academic, and artistic. Both are essential, but both are different; and neither is superior to the other (so should we still refer to one as ‘proper’?). A ‘one size fits all’ approach to writing, diminishes both sides I believe. It forces each style to take on a frame that neither is suited for (for it’ll be a give & take approach to make it fair). And see, the more formal kind of writing does not have the capacity to take into account the uniqueness of the writer, beyond the salutation. And this is what word processor is build upon; formal. Both styles of writing (formal and artistic) tend to share the same principles, such as the correct spelling of word, punctuation marks etc. —but where it’s mandatory that formal must comply with these principles; the artistic has liberty to chart its own course. Many of my poems don’t actually have a full stop, till after several lines. And I’m a total fan of beginning without a capital letter sometimes. Much of the formal style of writing, is controlled; both overtly and in a handful of subtle ways.

The artistic style of writing, so much resembles the multi-faceted oral communication in this beautiful world of ours. Just think about it; there can be as many as 100 different dialects in just a single language! And trained/familiar ears can astonishingly tell the difference. Artistic writing is an abundance in itself, and very much able to represent our many dialects. Word processor is still cool, but we need only keep in mind that: it is founded on a writing style that is (not opposed to), but simply different from that of an artistic writer. When it tells you that there’s a grammatical error..perhaps it’s wrong; not you.

I’m so grateful for this article Amber, I cannot even begin to express it. Thank you! It has enlightened me on things I just never knew before, and has given me the opportunity to analyse quite a lot about myself as a writer, and my perception on/of it.

6 On Tuesday 06 September 2011 Amber wrote:

Passion, Thanks so much for your comment. Your name fits! You’ve added lots more for me to think about in this already churning basket. I’ve found that the unique voice comes across many storms, the formality of the word processer being just one of them. Thinking about what you call academic writing, I understand you mean technical writing but also see it as academic creative writing which has widely influenced the literary world. The seperations are really visible in the literary magazines, in print or online. There is so much available I want to just bury my head and write, and that’s the best thing to do anyway…

7 On Monday 16 January 2012 Dave Perlmutter wrote:

I have clicked the link to your blog from the Third Sunday Blog carnival…I have enjoyed your blog and have followed.

Follow mine if you wish and also have a post on the Carnival Blog.

My blog is…http://thewrongplaceatthewrongtime.blogspot.com/

Good luck,

Dave Perlmutter


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