Thoughts on Technology & Writing I

I have to say upfront that I am not a technophobe. I’m the go-to person in this house for computer related issues. I’m not a bad hand at cell phones either, though my experience is limited, having a dumb phone rather than a smart one. So when getting a new laptop spurred me to think about the evolution and devolution of the uses of technology in my life and its effect on my work and leisure, it is not in a context of fear or aversion. Quite the opposite. I want to think about it because I’m enamoured of my new laptop. I like the feel of the keyboard, the luminescence of the transparent taskbar in royal purple, the shuffle of playful and gorgeous images on my desktop. But do I write any better for it? Really. How did I get here?

My first laptop was a hand-me-down Texas Instruments 286. Anyone remember those? The screen was monochrome, amber against black. Operating on DOS, my computer had no programs except Wordperfect. (Remember reveal codes?)

That was 1994. For the summer I took a chance on devoting my time to writing. I had my laptop, travelling to Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Also in the plane, in the special compartment reserved for small beings, was my cat, Snowball, a big timid guy who didn’t like travelling at all. He spent the first three days in PEI hiding under my bed.

Taking a couple of my short stories as a start, I wrote a sketch for The River Midnight, first longhand in a notebook and then transcribing it to my laptop. I spent the summer walking, watching, writing.

There was no internet then. Computers were work tools processing text and numbers. But it was marvelous because you could move text around and erase and it was so much easier than my typewriter had been. You could mysteriously lose a day’s work (or more) by pressing the wrong key. But you could carry backup in a pocket. (I met a writer on the island whose house had burned down, turning 4 years of her work into ash. She planted a garden in it.)

I didn’t want to leave and at summer’s end I had an intense spiritual experience, during which I wept and felt directed home though I questioned what home meant. Back in Toronto, I tossed 90% of the sketch while figuring out how to write a first draft. A couple of chapters in, feeling disoriented by the noise and smell of the city, I met A. The next few summers we went to the east coast together. I wrote my first novel; he wrote his doctoral dissertation. At times, alone at home writing, I felt isolated.

Lest you think I didn’t procrastinate during those golden days of DOS when all I could do was write on my laptop, I’ll quickly disabuse you of that notion. Pre-internet, I watched all the talk shows to avoid a blank page. I got rid of cable. I got rid of my tv, keeping only the small b&w one (I said) in case I was sick and in dire need of tv. The portable black and white served just as well. The only thing that displaced it was digital solitaire.

After RM sold, I bought a laptop with a colour screen, operating on windows 95. No internet yet, but I was able to procrastinate by a) changing the colour scheme on my colour screen and b) playing solitaire. At that time a lot of people were spending a lot of time playing solitaire on their new windows systems. (Other times people tore their hair out. That was because unlike DOS, windows did weird things you couldn’t see. This was the beginning of tech support.)

Email became a thing while I was writing The Singing Fire. At first A and I resisted because we thought email would be distracting (ha! little did we know from distraction yet). But eventually we caved, feeling out of the loop, especially since he could get online free with his university account. I acquired a card for my laptop that slid out with a little opening to plug in a phone line.

For shy people, email felt like a gift though it did take up gobs of time when I signed up for list-serves. No more writer’s isolation. I got hundreds of emails relating to interests and connections other than writing. I became embroiled in flame wars, siding with one side or another, gossiping with A about the people on the list serves. But as I think about this, and then think again, I have to say that I experienced the same thing in 3d when I was on the board of a synagogue in my pre email years. In fact we got an email account because we were late to hear about the latest episode in the skirmish between factions.

What was different was that online gossip and conflict went on at a hectic and around the clock pace. There were new messages every minute (rather like texting nowadays) and I felt compelled to check, not wanting to miss anything, and it was a new way to procrastinate. No more solitaire! That passed by the wayside.

The function of my computer had shifted from a work tool with solitaire to a work tool and communication hub. More tomorrow.

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Categories Book Stuff, Writing LifeTags

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Technology & Writing I

  1. Lilian, this thoughtful post mirrored my own journey, and it did so beautifully – I am looking forward to reading more tomorrow!

  2. Thanks so much, Cate. I just finished the next post and it’s scheduled. Now I’m back to draft 1.

  3. Lillian, I think that the way we write also affects the work. People say they can tell the precise moment when Henry James stopped writing out his books and began dictating…

    1. That’s interesting, Emily. How did his work change? I was just talking to A about this recently. I read a blog post about someone going back to longhand to avoid the distractions of the computer and I was thinking about that. But I like the keyboard because it engages both hands and I’m ambidextrous. If I write with either hand, I feel that other part of me is left out.

  4. Your mention of solitaire makes me laugh, because I went through my own long solitaire phase, which I played when I didn’t want to grade papers. I still play it occasionally. But now, Twitter is a much more interesting way to procrastinate. I write a comment or two on a paper, look up to see that there are new tweets, and get lost following links for a while.

  5. I love this, Lilian. It is so hard not to procrastinate, isn’t it? I do remember reading an article once (think it was in the New Yorker) saying that most inspiration comes in a moment of inattention to the actual task…the brain actually needs to be diverted for a second, to then put all the threads together. I took this as permission to play solitaire or answer email from time to time.

  6. Isn’t it funny to think back over how writing changes with technology – and our entire communicative lives, of course. I never had email until I became a Research Fellow, so that must be the late 90s. I can’t even recall now the first time I saw an email screen, but I know I cottoned onto it pretty quickly! Email is a dream for shy people – you can compose what you want to say in advance, and you never feel like you’re bothering people, because they can read it when they choose. Looking forward to part 2!

  7. Dorothy, I can’t possibly keep up with all the tweets, so I use HootSuite to organize some of them into categories, and even so I browse the others randomly.

    Michelle, I wish that writerly things would come to me while I’m otherwise occupied but they don’t. I have to give myself permission to lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. That’s when ideas come. Isn’t that what Nadine Gordimer recommends? Or am I mixing her up with some other wise and elderly writer?

    Litlove, yes–and you can answer when you choose, too. It’s not as much fun as getting an actual letter in the mail, but I remember pre-computers thinking out letters in my head so many times and never actually getting around to writing or typing them out and posting them. I’m so much better with email and I suspect a lot of people are.

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