Saturday, September 19, 2009

Writing The Old-Fashioned Way

I heard crime novelist James Ellroy interviewed on NPR this morning, and he said he doesn't own a cell phone or computer, and he's never been on the Internet. Plus, he does all his writing in longhand. He's not the first fiction writer I've heard of who spurns technology. Elmore Leonard, a pretty successful novelist himself, writes his novels in longhand. And William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, the first great cyberpunk novel, claimed for years that he didn't own a computer and even when he did finally get one, he didn't use the Internet.

Is this possible? Isn't every writer obligated to be plugged in these days? How can you write whole novels in longhand, with that most ancient of writing instruments, the pencil? Isn't that a really slow way of writing?

Well, yes. But it's actually a very satisfying one. When you write with a pencil, you have to slow your thoughts down to the pace of the scratching of the pencil on paper. It allows you to examine each individual thought, hold it up to the light and see what it's really made of. You're not in this mad rush to get your thoughts on the computer screen, your fingers flying across the keyboard almost faster than your mind can think.

And writing, good writing, is all about thinking. Gibson once said in an interview that he composed much of his first novel while sitting in a rocking chair looking out a window at his house. He worked it all out in his mind first, then wrote it down. Maybe that's why his vision of the future, written in the early 1980s, has been so eerily prescient. Gibson predicted networked computers, the Internet, virtual reality, and many other technological innovations that have since come true. He took a look around at his world and then thought deeply about it, and came up with a vision of the future that has been amazingly true.

I remember reading a story about the novelist John O'Hara, where late in his career he went on a vacation to Bermuda. He wanted to get away from writing, so he didn't bring his typewriter, or even a notepad. However, he got an idea for a short story, and it wouldn't leave him. He began to work it out in his mind while at the beach, and on the last day of his vacation he asked the hotel he was staying at if they could provide him with a typewriter. When he got the typewriter he sat down and wrote the story, word for word, from the mental work he had done all week. He typed rapidly, as if he was just taking dictation, and when he was finished he didn't change a word. He had written and edited it in his head, and there was no need to change a thing. It was published shortly thereafter.

A well-trained mind is still a writer's best tool. It beats a computer any day.