09 November 2012

Of Pen and Ink

Somewhere in the basement, in files I have not looked into for years and then years, there are pages of yellow legal pad paper covered over with words, words, words! What is the matter, my lord? These sheets are the rough drafts of papers I wrote before I began composing on the computer. They are the sheets from which I typed the formal, final manuscripts of the papers I wrote for college and graduate school (or that I gave to an expert typist for final preparations). They are, of course, not clean copies: there exist yet cross-outs and insertions and stains of coffee and blueberry muffins covering the words so carefully thought out and written. Carefully thought out because every wrong idea meant a sheet crumpled and tossed. Every wrong idea meant the destruction of large segments of the paper, or the complicated process of literally cutting and pasting whole pieces of the paper together. If the sentence or paragraph revision occurred on the bottom of the page then often the whole sheet had to be rewritten and/or repositioned. Writing then seemed to demand the mental composition of whole sentences and even paragraphs even before a pen was put to paper. There are hundred of pages down there in the files, and having over the past thirty-five years or so turned to the computer for my composition, I can’t imagine how I was able to produce not just all of the papers but even a single one. And then I wrote with ball point pens that were usually lost or misplaced before they ever ran out of ink.
So today I marvel at the ability of say, Henry James or George Eliot, to compose the remarkably long and complex sentences and paragraphs in any one of their novels much less in the entire body of their work. They wrote with pen and paperand fountain pens at thatand plain, even unlined paper. I wonder what their manuscripts look like?
The computer has altered the composing process. I think that now I think in smaller grammatical units, and am certainly more carefree in the manner in which I lay down the words; I know that anything can be easily deleted (or even somewhere saved!) and possess still yet a clean sheet of ‘paper’ on which to continue writing. My floor is no longer littered with crumpled sheets torn from the pad and my waste paper basket has no discarded sheets. Now simple movements of the keys delete and move my words and thought about. Perhaps at the computer I now have more possibilityJames might have been more ready to leave a less than perfect construction rather than destroy a whole written page. And I marvel at the process of his insertions (of words it might not have been too difficult) but of whole sentences and paragraphs the effort might have been quite daunting. Perhaps in the 1906 revision of the novels James undertook the work that with pen and paper seemed at the time too complex.
And I wonder how my thought has shrunk with my current practice of composing on the computer. I need think in terms not of sentences and paragraphs but of words and phrases. In the composition, I go by going where I have to go, and need make not too careful plans for my route.


Anonymous Barbara said...

Though the computer technology has made it much easier to edit and rewrite, I do believe that this same technology has led to the decline in other skills such as legible handwriting, knowledge of correct grammar, spelling, etc. One begins to rely so much on grammar and spell check that one loses the ability to do these tasks him/herself when needed.

By my warped way of thinking, I often ponder that in the future, people may even lose some ability to communicate through vocalizations and read facial expressions because of the widely used texting process now used by so many.

I guess it's all part of the process of evolution (or what some may call PROGRESS) whether I like it or not.

09 November, 2012 18:41  

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