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Sunday, June 19, 2011

From the Typewriter to the Cloud: The Impact of Technology on Writing


One of this year’s finds at the annual AAUW book sale at Penn State was “The Writer’s Chapbook,” a collection of reflections about writing by top authors, drawn from their interviews in “The Paris Review.”   Reading it the other day, I stumbled over several authors commenting on the impact of the typewriter on writing. 

The biographer Leon Edel talked about Henry James, who must have been one of the early adopters of this new technology.  Here’s what he said:  “He began dictating directly to the typewriter.  It’s a case of the medium being the message and with dictation he ran into longer sentences, and parenthetical remarks, and when he revised what he had dictated he tended to add further flourishes.  In the old days, when he wrote in longhand he was much briefer and crisper, but now he luxuriated in fine phrases and he was exquisitely baroque.”

Conrad Aiken, noting that he never used a carbon copy “because that made me self-conscious,” wrote, “I can remember discussing the effect of the typewriter on our work with Tom Eliot because he was moving to the typewriter about the time I was.  And I remember our agreeing that it made for a slight change of style in the prose-that you tended to use more periodic sentences, a little shorter, and a rather choppier style—and that one must be careful about that . . . But that was a passing phase only.  We both soon discovered that we were just as free to let the style throw itself into the air as we had been writing manually.”

I suspect it is too bad that Henry James dictated rather than take to the keyboard himself. 

These couple of examples also made me wonder:  how has word processing changed style over the past two decades?  One imagines that the ability for infinite self-correction should free the imagination and allow writers to be more spontaneous, on one hand, and more precise on the other hand.  Then, add the Internet as a publishing environment.  I have to think that the ability to immediately publish one’s thoughts would lead to shorter pieces more focused on the immediacy of insight rather than on long, complexly woven pieces—a tendency reinforced by the limitations on length imposed by Twitter.  However, there is also the inevitable temptation to constantly revisit and revise—to not let good enough alone in this environment.  This suggests the need for a new artistic ethos:  that the writer, having written, must move on.   But it also raises a question about the relationship between writer and reader and how readers engage with the writer in the creative process.   In this new environment, is writing about the finished product or does the reader gain artistic insight in the process itself?

Worth exploring more.  Any thoughts?