Flight of the Vajra: Smoothly Drafted Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-10-19 14:00:00 No comments

Some more thoughts on the second draft process.

I can't deny how much easier all this is with a computer, although as I noted before, if I'd been dealing with nothing but a typewriter and a notebook I might well have managed just as easily because I wouldn't have known any differently, and would have made the best of what I had.

That brought back to mind how others have speculated that the advent of tools like the word processor made it all the easier for the writer to grind out dreck, or to add uneeded length to a story. Evidently those people never read Pamela or Vanity Fair (not the magazine), but let's look past that cheap shot.

Technology has been described as an amplifier of human desire. The creation of the typewriter or the word processor has not made long-form writing possible -- see the above examples — but they have made it easier. They reduce certain kinds of drudgery, mainly the time and physical effort involved in creating a draft. (The band Timbuk 3, of "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades" fame, once said something almost in exactly those words: "We use technology to make our music easier, not to make our music possible.")

Two things seem to have happened with the advent of modern writing technology. The first is that it has empowered a great many people to write who before might well have never done so. The second is how it has moved the goalposts for what is difficult or challenging.

Both of these things are a mixed bag. I prefer to think the first is more good than bad, if only because I've always believed that technology has on the whole made human life a far more pleasant endeavor, as long as we understand nothing comes without a cost. The computer I'm typing this on did not come out of nowhere, and that's why my PCs get dismantled for recycling or given to friends instead of dumped on the curb. More to the point, I think on balance it's a good thing that more people can and want to write because the tools are widespread and make the job easier. (Criticizing the results is something I have to keep in its own compartment, because I maintain faith in the idea that the best of writers will always benefit from perceptive criticism.)

It's the second condition — that writing technology has changed what is actually difficult about writing — that I'm more curious about, and more skeptical about as well. It's much easier than ever to produce a manuscript of any length. What I'm seeing, by and large, is how simply being given the means to work comfortably at that length doesn't automatically give someone something to say which justifies the length. If you give an unaccomplished filmmaker a RED One, he'll barely know what to do with it. Give a real filmmaker nothing more than a smartphone camera, and he'll find a way to make even something that minimal serve his purpose. Most every literary masterwork was assembled with little more than a pen, and in many cases, not even with the aid of the pen (as Homer could attest).

Now, I am not going to argue that making things easier for writers is a mistake. Things were not better when we had to walk uphill to school both ways in the snow, etc. What I do argue is that the technology is that much more separate from the inclination and the desire. The desire to reach people, to entertain them, enthrall them, share something hard-won — those exist apart from the methodology used to embody them in something. If you don't already have those things burning, the mere fact of owning a PC won't kindle them. It can help, but the original fire has to be there. Our ambitions must always find their true roots in something other than the methodology used to bring them to life.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra technology writers writing