I met an aspiring screenwriter a few weeks ago. Recent college grad–a bit like myself, I suppose, in that the world intrigued her and she wasn’t sure what she wanted to write about, though she definitely liked to write. She told me about how she had recently started using a typewriter. It was great, she said, something about the pounding of the keys and detachment from the rest of the world.
My first thought? Huh, that’s pretty cool. Next thought? Definitely not for me.
Our conversation brought to mind a worthwhile question. Does technology help you write? Does it help some of us? All of us? Yes, I know, typewriters are technically “technology,” but they’re outdated. They don’t count. I’m talking about the spirit of the question. Do modern-day advances in technology–Microsoft Word, blogs, the iPad–help us write better?
It’s a much more complicated question than you might think. I was quick to dismiss the possibility that a typewriter might help squeeze a few more bits of wisdom, insight, and creativity out of my head and onto a page. Yet my gut reaction to the question of technology is Yes, of course it helps! Where would I be without word processors that let me delete and add anything at will? Don’t like that sentence? Gone. Want it moved to the next paragraph? Done. Combine it with the next sentence? No problem.
I could write the first sentence of this blog post, then write the last paragraph, jot down a few thoughts in the middle, take a day off, and come back the next day and do it all over again. I can switch from one draft to another in two clicks–back and forth over and over again depending on time and inspiration. Sometimes it feels like I don’t even need a rough draft anymore because I can add polished pieces here and there whenever I want.
All of this, by the way, may or may not reflect the actual writing process of this post, but that’s for another time. . .
With the power of the word processor ever at my fingertips, of course technology does indeed help me write. And even if I can’t sell you on the idea that it inherently improves my writing, it at least makes writing much less frustrating and thereby more enjoyable. If writing is more enjoyable, then I’ll do it more. And if I do it more, then we can reasonably assume I’ll get better at it.
However, as the traditional concept of “drafts” falls before the instant-response word processor and instant-access internet, I fear it may have two bad consequences. The first is that it destroys the incentive for writers (like me) to trash their first drafts and start over entirely with a second one. Hemingway said (and I paraphrase) that the first draft of anything is crap. If such is often the case, then all of us “churn-out-content” folks out there–journalists, bloggers, students, etc.–are doing ourselves a great disservice, choosing volume and expediency over depth and quality. We may be writing a lot, but as we increasingly accelerate the writing process, will this generation produce anyone of the caliber of Dickens, Hemingway, or Orwell? Maybe, but I doubt it.
The second drawback is this: With word processors come computers, and with computers come this distracting little thing called the internet.
The internet has engulfed and enveloped the fabric of our lives. I use it for just about everything knowledge-related. It’s wonderful. But I think it has also reduced my capacity for meditation–for thinking long, hard, and well–and that affects writing.
Don’t take this post as hating on the internet. I don’t have a short attention span because the internet has somehow destroyed or weakened my mind, it just happens to make it really easy to go through lots of varied material very quickly. I read dozens of articles online each week. Most of them interest me and have a lot of informative things to say. The problem is that I have a hard time processing and sorting all of them into a coherent, manageable picture that sharpens my mind. Rather, each tends to come across as just another opinion, another view on a subject, an interesting tidbit of information that may or may not end up shaping my view of the world and the way I respond to it.
How am I know whether this random internet writer is putting a spin on something? How do I know his sources are legit? I never take the time to check them (though thankfully there are a few crazy people out there who do). It hardly seems worth it when I can barely get through three daily emails of news headlines and a weekly magazine of political commentary and analysis. If I find something longer than 2,000 words I may bookmark it for later, but my chances of coming back to it are rare.
And all that is not to mention my favorite Christian blogs, sports teams, random articles on Facebook and Twitter, and books (yes, I still try to read books on the side). Simply put, I think the internet often causes me to read too much because it overwhelms me with information.
All of that to say that it makes it tough to write sometimes. One, because it is distracting, and two, because there is so much content out there that it is hard to interact with it.
What is to be done?
I don’t know. Technology helps a lot. It is an endless source of inspiration, and it never forgets things once I’ve written them down. It lets me do whatever I want with my writing whenever I want to do it–as fast as I can click and type. It has the flexibility to work with my schedule, but it also consumes a lot of my schedule.
Maybe I need a typewriter after all.