Writing & Technology

Mathew Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2016) will delight a certain kind of readership: those who, like myself, are interested not only in what a writer has to say but in the tools the writer employs to say it. Readers who are keenly interested in both literature and technology are undoubtedly a minority but I’d wager there are more of us around than you might think. Certainly word processing itself has been around long enough, and become mainstream enough, to warrant a history of its development.

Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
A fascinating study of writers and the technologies they employ.

Kirschenbaum, an English professor at the University of Maryland, does a fine job of describing how writers came to terms with (or chose not to come to terms with) word processing technology. In fact, as the author points out, word processing is just another point on the spectrum of writers’ methodologies. It did not replace longhand, nor did it completely replace the typewriter. Writers are a versatile lot.

Here are a few examples: George R. R. Martin, whose series Song of Ice and Fire became HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” writes with an antique word processing program called WordStar, using a DOS-era computer which is not connected to the Internet. (Philip Roth also used a DOS machine, in his case with WordPerfect.) Joyce Carol Oates, an incredibly prolific writer, sticks to longhand (and a typewriter).

At first, the ease and fluidity promised by word processing (for those writers who chose to embrace it) were thought to threaten literary quality. It was felt the machine and its software would wind up doing too much of the writer’s work. Some early adopters even tried to conceal their use of word processing because of the perceived stigma. The writer Gish Jen describes fellow students at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop working at mainframe terminals and then deliberately “doctoring” their printouts—adding annotations by hand, rumpling the corners—before sending their work out for consideration. “Real writers,” their instructors said, used pencils or typewriters. Yet for Jen the personal computer (in her case an early Apple) overcame such prejudices. “Computers coaxed out of me an expansiveness the typewriter never did,” she said. “What came out … was not further from the human heart; it was closer. It was looser, freer, more spontaneous—more democratic, too.”

Kirschenbaum’s history runs the gamut from do-it-yourself personal computer kits to early Kaypros and Osbornes to the latest “artisanal” software tools like Scrivener. He nominates Len Deighton‘s Bomber as the first published (in 1970) novel written with a word processor, the IBM MT/ST. The book is nicely written, with an appealing tongue-in-cheek humor. If you’re at all interested in how writing gets put together, this is highly recommended.

The Writers Studio

Update, 8/5/19: more than two years on, I’m embarrassed by the writing sample provided below. I’m also embarrassed over my early enthusiasm for the Writers Studio. It can function well as an introduction of sorts for newcomers, but I can’t recommend it for anyone else—student abilities vary widely (and too much time is devoted to those less skilled), instruction can be uneven and the two-page exercises grow tedious over time.

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

Continue reading “The Writers Studio”

Some Timely Reading

I’d wanted to write about craft today, in conjunction with a workshop I’m taking at the Writers Studio. However, in light of Donald Trump’s illegal, immoral and un-American ban on refugees entering the United States, I’ve decided to focus on other fiction instead. Dystopian fiction. Fiction perfectly suited to today’s “post-truth” environment and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

1984 by George Orwell
1984: the best-known dystopian novel.

First up: George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel. It gives me some hope to tell you that the paperback version is temporarily out of stock at Amazon; I’ve linked to the Kindle version instead.

There are very good reasons why so many people have felt compelled to read or re-read this book—its depictions of the obliteration of objective truth and the destruction of fundamental human rights are very much in keeping with Trump’s first week in office.

Next, two classic alternative histories portraying a fascist America. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935 (and also out of stock at Amazon), still retains the power to shock. So too does Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which describes a fascist American government run by Charles Lindbergh. It too is out of stock. With hate crimes on the upswing and swastikas popping up around the country, you’ll find both books resonate strongly.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has entered the language.

After 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be the best-known dystopian novel. Amazingly, the paperback version is currently available. This is a masterful portrait of psychological manipulation writ large, at the service of a totalitarian state. Helping to preserve order is a wondrous new antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug, soma. Today’s American equivalent would be opioids in the impoverished rural areas and social media among the chattering classes.

Finally, a title of special interest for those who participated in the Women’s March on Washington: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This 1985 novel concerns the subjugation of women in a totalitarian theocracy. Many would argue that Mike Pence and the desire to destroy Planned Parenthood are steps in that direction.

In this dark time, it’s heartening that many Americans can see the distortions and deceptions of Trump’s administration reflected in classic titles. Together with the continuing protests around the country, it suggests that resistance may eventually produce change.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.

A Work in Progress

Here’s a draft version of something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“Symphony no. 8”

When we talk about the “Mighty Nine”
We could be talking about almost anything.
Maybe it’s baseball, the ’27 Yankees.
Maybe the Supreme Court, or a video game.
There aren’t many music classes
Left in the schools these days.

Suppose you do encounter Beethoven, though.
Suppose you listen to each and every symphony
And hear them all more than once.
Which would you then say
Moved you the most?
The “Eroica”? The Fifth? The Mighty Ninth?

For me it would be a different choice,
A work not played as often as the others.
A fiery work, but somehow also cold and isolated.
I’m referring to the glittering, self-contained Eighth:
A work that pierces ice-blue skies
To no applause on earth.

—Thomas Pletcher

Ulysses Sails Through NaNoWriMo

As a writer with a technology background, I find apps designed for writing of more than ordinary interest. I’ve tried a huge number of them and have quite a few still installed. For the 2016 edition of NaNoWriMo, however, I basically chose one app and stuck with it most of the way through: Ulysses.

Most of my writing is done on a MacBook Pro, although I also use Linux from time to time (Ubuntu on a Dell XPS 13). The Mac has a huge number of writing apps available, more than any other platform. Scrivener and Ulysses are probably the best known and most widely used.

For NaNoWriMo, I found Ulysses to be virtually ideal. The chapter summaries (in the middle column) keep you oriented as you work through your plot development. Progress toward your daily word count is graphically shown in the upper right hand corner, which is quite motivating. The application is streamlined and powerful, but not overly complicated. It can be configured in any number of ways to suit your preferences (full-screen mode is especially nice).

Ulysses screenshot
Note the graphical word count widget in the upper right corner—when the circle completes and turns green, you’ve reached your daily target.

Linux, unfortunately, lacks the Mac’s variety of writing programs. Still, there are options. For two or three days last November, I used FocusWriter, a nicely designed and versatile open source program available across platforms. It too offers a nice full-screen mode and a daily word count progress indicator, albeit text-based.

Ultimately, though, I felt most comfortable and productive during NaNoWriMo while using Ulysses.

NaNoWriMo 2016

I’ve recently completed my first NaNoWriMo, winding up with a 50,000-plus-word draft of a novel I’ve tentatively titled The Divide. I found it a worthwhile endeavor in a number of different ways.

First, there is the event’s quantity-over-quality vibe that is designed to overcome writer’s block—it works. In fact, I found incorporating the production of 1,667 words into my daily routine much easier than I would have imagined. So much easier, in fact, that at the end of 30 days I found I had mild withdrawal symptoms.

Second, if you successfully complete NaNoWriMo you wind up with a large chunk of text that you can rework as you see fit. Of course, your rapidly produced November draft is bound to be somewhat uneven (although I think the relaxation fostered by the event actually produces some worthwhile results).

Reworking your rough draft is what the “Now What?” months of January and February are for, apparently. NaNoWriMo says it supports the revision and publishing process “with the added aim of helping you fulfill your novel’s potential: from first draft to final.”

If any of you have gone through the “Now What” process I’d love to hear from you, either via a comment or an email (write to tpletcher [at] writeside.com).