Magazine: American Scholar

Section: Life and Letters..........


As more and more of my illusions about myself continue to fall away--to name just a few among them: that I was a fine little athlete, not a bad dancer, a pretty serious lover, an elegant dresser, a nice-looking fella--the one that I can't shake is that I am a fast worker. This illusion is reinforced by various people telling me that I am very productive, though they usually stop short of using the term, vaguely insulting to writers of our day, "prolific." Odd but somehow I don't feel in the least productive; I feel, in fact, rather slothful. I feel slothful, first, because I know how much of my working day is given over to empty diversions; and, second, owing to my illusion that I am a fast worker, I am always inclined to feel that I could--and should--be doing so much more.

It's far from clear that the world requires any more from me than I now provide. Some might prefer rather less. Philip Larkin, whose poetry I much admire, when reviewing a collection of my essays in the London Times Literary Supplement a number of years ago, remarked upon how queer it was that essays such as mine were written in the United States at all. He ended by saving that "the situation would seem to be one of supply rather than demand." Something to it, I fear. I fear, too, that one's writing resembles one's children, if only in the sense that, however much writing one does (or however many children one has), it seems all that one can possibly do (or have). And yet the nagging feeling persists that one should have done--should be doing--more.

The inky-fingered Balzac, whom no one is ever likely to have faulted for paucity of production, writing with debtors at his back and visions of glory before him, used to talk about smoking enchanted cigarettes, by which he meant conversation about books he wished to, but knew he never would, write. I have puffed upon a few of those cigarettes myself, going so far as actually to take publishers' advances for a biography of John Dos Passos and for a book on snobbery. (Returning a publisher's advance, which I bad to do on both occasions, is not easy; one has to imagine setting a money-stuffed wallet with no identification in it back onto the street where one found it; not only does one feel bereft of' the cash, but one feels that it will only fall into worse hands than one's own.) I have no great regret about not having written either of these books: I have discovered that I have too bulky an ego to devote years of my own life to writing a lengthy book about someone else's life; and, as for the snobbery book, well, I still puff on that enchanted cigarette from time to time, telling myself I may do it yet.

But the book I really regret not having written is the trilogy that I could have written on the job when, as a young man, I worked as a senior editor at a large middle-western publishing firm. True, I am not a novelist; true, even if I had been, when I worked there, in my late twenties and early thirties, I probably would not have had the material or the maturity to write a trilogy. But it was also true that, in nearly five years on this job, I had enough time to write three trilogies, a Finnish epic, and a study of net games in Patagonia. Viewed in retrospect, it was like being on some very generous grant, though not realizing it until afterwards.

On that job, for which I was quite well paid, there were long periods during which I was asked to do very little. A meeting might be called for Friday, and the Thursday before a secretary would appear to announce that the man who had called the meeting bad to go out of town and wouldn't return until the following Wednesday. No further assignment was given; there was no backlog of work to catch up on. Five days lay before me, on each of which I put on a suit and tie, took a train into the city, and did nothing, nada, absolutely zilch. This happened fairly regularly. Much of this free time was spent in general grousing with fellow editors; some in audacious but unimpressive philosophical speculation; a good bit more in office gossip. The years whirred by. I wrote twenty or thirty book reviews on the job and a few essays. But I have always regretted that I never did anything more substantial. A poet, the Russian 'proverb has it, always cheats his boss, which, I assume, means that his mind is on his poems when it should be on the job. Why should any other kind of writer do less?

From the beginning of my interest in becoming a writer, I found myself fascinated by the conditions under, and methods by, which famous writers worked. For a short while I was taken in by the false drama of the supposedly excruciating difficulty of writing. This drama was probably most economically set out by the excellent sportswriter Red Smith, who said, apropos of the difficulty he found in composition, that he merely sat at his typewriter until little drops of blood appeared on his forehead. It was not uncommon to find others comparing the act of writing to that ultimate act of creation, childbirth, drawing out au elaborate analogy between the stages of writing and those of pregnancy, from insemination (with an idea) through postparturn depression (after delivering a book). Thus the music critic and composer Cecil Gray, in his autobiography Musical Chairs, writes:

Like everything I have written, words or music, or both, it was the outcome of a long period of gestation followed by a rapid parturition. The short score sketch of all three acts was completed in as many months, but the Conception had been in my mind for ten years. (Oh, my elephantine pregnancies! flow I envy and yet despise the quick, slick rabbit litters of the facile mediocrities!)

Speaking as (evidently) a rabbit-litter man, I have never had a baby surprising as this news may be, but my view is that, not even nearly all things considered, if it is delivery we are talking about, I should much prefer delivering a piece of writing, every time.

Another part of the drama of writing speaks to the deep loneliness of writers. Even my beloved Henry James could not resist sounding this note. "We work in the dark," are the words he put into the mouth of the novelist Dencombe in his story "The Middle Years," "--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Mencken, reacting to the general plaint of the loneliness of writers, suggested that any writer who felt overwhelmed by the loneliness of his task ought, as a cure, to spend a few days in a factory on an assembly line, where he would find plenty of opportunities to talk with his mates. If the drama of writers is even minimally true, why, one wonders, would anyone take up such a hard calling? I have myself always thought that it bad something to do with the notion that writing, whatever its complications and difficulties, still beats working, though I could be wrong,

To continue with the Iliad of writers' woes, let us not forget the perpetual wrestle with language. Among the famous wrestlers, the great Hulk Hogan of modern literature, Gustave Flaubert, reported regularly to his mistress Louise Colet on this endless tussle. "I spent five days on one page last week, and I gave up everything for it," he characteristically complains while at work on Madame Bovary. Joseph Conrad was another famous groaner about the excruciation of composition, likening himself to a criminal dragging "the ball and chain of one's selfhood to the end," but Conrad at least had the excuse that lie was working in English, which was his third language. Valery used to say that he never finished but only abandoned his poems. But with the great writers, in the end, pain dissolves into love, and even so incessant a complainer as Flaubert has to allow that, when it is going well, the world offers no keener pleasure than that provided by writing:

... it is grand to write [he reports to Louise Colet], to cease to be oneself, and to move among creatures one is describing. Today, for instance, I have been a man and woman at the same time, lover and mistress together, riding in the forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellowing leaves; and I have been the horses, too, and the leaves, and the wind, and the words they spoke and the red sun that made them blink their eyes that swam with love. It may be out of pride or of reverence, from a foolish gush of excessive self-conceit or a vague but lofty religious sense, but when I reflect, after experiencing these joys, I feel tempted to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to God, if only I knew he could hear me. But praise be His Name that I was not born a Cotton merchant, a music hall artist, or a wit, etc.

Which brings me to a topic I approach with the apprehension that only serious superstition makes possible. I speak--fingers crossed, a string of garlic round my neck, and in supplication on my knees--of writer's block, that psychological condition that stanches a writer's flow of words. Baudelaire spoke of this condition of "`sterilites des ecrivains nerveux'... that anguished suspension of all power of thought that comes to one in the midst of a very revel of production, like the slave with his memento mori at a feast." I have--touch wood, kayn aynhoreh, Lordy be--never undergone writer's block, but I have known people who have and have some inkling of what a horrendous psychological affliction it can be. Hard to know what causes this affliction that leaves writers stranded like ruptured ducks, and we are not talking here about mallards imaginaires. A psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler, in New York in the 1950s and 1960s, used to claim a high record of cure for writer's block. His modus operandi, I gather, was to inform writers that this block business was all a lot of nonsense, a sign of immaturity, and that they ought to knock it off and get the hell back to the typewriter. (Bergler was apparently a man who yelled in a German accent, which can be effective.)

My own guess is that a writer can be blocked because he is, in some fundamental way, unclear about what it is he wants to write; or he can be fearful, knowing that what he must write will expose him in a way that he senses could be ruinous to him, or at least to his sense of himself; or he may not have been able to recognize and work through some deep flaw in the composition before him; or, perhaps gravest danger of all, he is stung by tyrannous perfectionism, a perfectionism leading on to literary constipation. In his novel To an Early Grave, Wallace Markfield has a character, a minor critic named Holly Levine, who suffers from the latter variant of writer's block. "Certainly, Professor Gombitz's essays, gathered together for the first time, yield pleasure of a kind," Levine begins a book review. Then he alters the sentence to read: "An essay by Gombitz will clearly yield...." When he decides that perhaps it is better formulated as, "An essay by Gombitz will surely yield...." Which is supplanted by, "Surely, essays such as these are bound to yield...." The possibilities being nearly endless, the review remains beginningless. The whole project is hopelessly blocked.

Out of fear of such blockage, every writer senses that he must manipulate things so that his flow of words not only begins but continues. The first trick is beginning. In a useful little essay, "A Writer's Discipline," Jacques Barzun, writing out of his own ample experience, states the problem and puts the point with precision: "There is only one way: to study one's needs and quirks, and circumvent one's tricks for escape." Barzun's excellent advice is to give in to those needs and quirks, but only as a reward against escape. "Suit thyself," he writes, "but pay for it, i.e., work!"

The needs and quirks, since I have quite a few of my own, especially interest me. I have always loved to read about the idiosyncrasies connected with the composition of other, chiefly famous, writers. Thornton Wilder must have had a similar interest, for he reports that "many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day's writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible--not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose.... My springboard has always been long walks."

My fascination with all this made me a natural reader--if "groupie" isn't the more precise word--of the interviews in the Paris Review, which I remained, until the editors used up all the significant writers, which they long since have done. My interest was invariably most enlivened when the interviewer would get around to asking, What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine? Here I always hoped for the most exotic responses. "I prefer to sumo wrestle an alligator, eat two pounds of pastrami and a large, thinly sliced Bermuda onion on a baguette with strong horseradish, and listen to all six Brandenburg Concertos before getting down to work. For the actual writing, I like to wear my black velour FILA jogging suit, tie my hair into a short ponytail, slip into my Air-Faulkner writing shoes, and, hey, baby, like the Nike commercial says, `Just do it!'" I hyperbolize but I do not entirely exaggerate. Here is how the then-young Truman Capote answered the same questions:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee bandy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.

If Capote was a horizontal author, Ernest Hemingway was a vertical one. He wrote standing up, usually in his bedroom in his house in Cuba, using the top of a bookcase, on which room was cleared, to quote the Paris Review, "for a typewriter, a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east windows." It gets better. Hemingway "stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a Lesser Kudu--the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him." He told his interviewer, George Plimpton, that he began in pencil, then shifted to his typewriter when his writing was going extremely well or when he wrote dialogue. Each day he kept count of the words he produced: "from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so be won't feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream." Hemingway was a strange old man, as he himself might have put it, but, when it came to writing, no stranger than most.

Hemingway wrote in the mornings, as the majority of writers tend to do, though I seem to remember reading that John O'Hara used to do his writing only after the completion of the last movie on television--"The Late Show" as it used to be called before the advent of cable and twenty-four-hour television--ending his work only after sunrise. T. S. Eliot, whether writing prose or poetry, felt himself good for roughly three hours of work at a sitting, Evelyn Waugh, a more concentrated worker than most, thought two thousand words a good day's work and tended to write best in provincial hotels, generally finishing his earlier novels, revisions and all, in roughly six weeks. Georges Simenon seldom took more than eleven days to write his Maigret novels, and usually had a physical before beginning a new one, so intensely absorbed was he in the work before him. Thomas Mann, another morning worker, used to consider the production of a single good page sufficient unto any day, and most days he produced that page. A page a day, if you don't knock off for too many weekends, would give you approximately a book a year. Nothing to sneeze at.

Except by Anthony Trollope, who would doubtless have used up several boxes of Kleenex sneezing at what he would have considered such paltry production. Trollope, in his autobiography, recounts that he always kept a precise record of his literary production, and that it tended to average forty pages (at 250 words to the page) a week, sometimes falling as low as twenty pages but once having risen to 112 pages. Trollope, who may have been the most completely professional writer ever to have lived, took great pride in delivering all his manuscripts exactly on time and as close as possible to the agreed-upon length. He accomplished all this, what is more, while holding a full-time job with the English postal system. This achievement is a rebuke to every writer awaiting grants, inspiration, encouragement, or mother love. Trollope's view was that one ought to regard one's work as the normal condition of one's life. "I therefore venture to advise young men who look forward to authorship as the business of their lives, even when they propose that that authorship be of the highest class known, to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers' clerks;--and so let them sit till their allotted tasks shall be accomplished."

Trollope tells of finishing his novel Doctor Thorne one day and beginning another, The Bertrams, the next. With a talent I have developed of improving upon already extraordinary stories, I artfully misremembered and retold this story so that Trollope had finished a novel in the middle of a morning's work and, rather than let the rest of his morning working session go to waste, took out a fresh piece of paper and began another novel that same morning. Not impossible, after all, for behind Trollope's impressive work habits was a strong conscience, a conscience quite properly fueled by fear of future remorse. "It was not on my conscience," he writes, "that I have ever scamped my work. My novels, whether good or bad, have been as good as I could make them." He then adds that, had he put three months of idleness between these two novels, the second would probably not have been any better.

Conscience, remorse, heavy and even self-invented guilt--ah, now we are coming into my country--the country, to misappropriate Sarah Orne Jewett's famous title, of the pointed fingers. I am not sure I could function without fear of incurring guilt in letting down editors, publishers, and now even myself. I am a writer who writhes and therefore writes best under deadline (a phrase whose etymology derives from the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville; any prisoner who crossed the line drawn around the perimeter of the camp was to be shot on sight). As a writer, I am eager to please and anxious lest I disappoint; and here I am talking about pleasing and not disappointing readers and editors. But the critic toughest to get by is myself: not, let me make plain, only the critic of quality--though I hope he is on the job, too--but of quantity.

On any day that I do not turn out a reasonable number of words I feel poorly about myself. Let three or four such days go by and I am able to make myself quite miserable. Deep loathing sets in somewhere between five days and a week of less-than-decent work. Longer than this and it becomes extremely difficult for me to justify my existence. A decent day's work is somewhere between eight hundred and twelve hundred not entirely awkward, imprecise, or ignoble words. On those rare days when I have been able to write two thousand or so such words, I am so deliriously smug that I am really quite unfit to speak even to myself.

Because my own self-regard is at stake--and for so self-regarding a fellow, no stakes could be higher--it is important that I work well. And since I spend a fair amount of my waking life selecting and arranging words, I am intensely interested in anything that will make the job more efficient. Hence my interest in other people's ways of going about it. I am ever on the outlook for new methods, tricks, secrets to improve the flow of my own words onto the page. For years I thought there might be a magic fountain pen that would make me a better writer. I still think there may be stationery of a kind that will make my words, when written out upon it, stronger, clearer, longer-lived.

Is there some method of composition I have not yet tried that could make the difference? Lionel Trilling many years ago reported that the writer Robert Warshow "composed by a method which is unusual; he formed each sentence slowly in his mind, and, when it was satisfactory, wrote it down as irrevocable." Trilling thought it a method beyond his own practical comprehension. How astounded he would have been by the performance of Edward Gibbon, who, after remarking that, as his great history progressed, he found less reason to revise his prose and went on to state that "it has always been my practise to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen, till I had given the last polish to my work." In other words--though why one should want words other than Gibbon's I am not sure--Gibbon formed entire paragraphs in his mind before writing them out, and he wrote, as everyone knows, wondrously intricate periodic sentences embedded in impressively lengthy, neatly pointed paragraphs.

My own mind runs only to remembering phrases, never more. I generally have no idea of what any sentence is going to look like until I write the damn thing out, and then I usually rework it a time or two. Because of this, I have never--not as a student, not now--been able to avail myself of outlines. Until I write that first sentence down, I can have no idea of what my second sentence is going to say or look like, let alone what my fifth paragraph will contain.

My method of composition, then, resembles on-the-job training, only at the verbal level. I have grown used to this loose, slightly riff-like method, which often brings with it pleasant surprises. "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say," E. M. Forster once famously remarked. I believe I may do him one better in not being sure what I write even while I am writing it.

Just because there is no order in my compositional life doesn't mean that I don't crave at least the appearance of order. I am extremely partial to having plenty of folders about, also lots of colored paper clips, and fine-leaded mechanical pencils. (I am quite nuts generally about office supplies.) But especially do I long for order, elegant order, in my manuscripts. "My Essay," wrote Gibbon, referring to his L'Essai sur l'etude de la litterature, "was finished in about six weeks, and as soon as a fair copy had been transcribed by one of the French prisoners at Petersfield I looked round for a critic and a judge of my first performance." I have always loved the phrase "fair copy," and seem to recall a photograph of the family of Count Tolstoy writing out a "fair copy" of War and Peace. Fair copy--implying as it does a fine tidiness, a beautiful intelligibility of outward form to fit what one hopes is a genuine clarity of inward thought--fair copy has long been the name of my desire.

Attempting to produce it without the aid of French prisoners or a large aristocratic Russian family has not proven easy for me. But, somehow, without a reasonable tidiness in my manuscripts, I generally feel a vague but quite real discomfort. Freudians used to term this condition anality. ("Anality, my ass," replies a character in an English novel when faced with this charge.) My method of attempting to achieve this tidiness was formerly a most complicated one. I wrote the paragraphs of my first draft in longhand; then typed out each of these paragraphs, usually making changes as I went; and, when this second, typed draft seemed fairly decent, I would then retype it, making still other, usually smaller changes, onto a final, or what I thought of as a fair, copy. Truth to tell, I should have preferred to make fair copies in a perfect handwriting, and would have done so, but for the fact that my handwriting could never produce anything considered anywhere near fair.

I took great pleasure in watching my typed fair-copy versions grow larger. But I also felt this fair copy, once created, inviolable. Making changes upon it, which, given my penchant for tidiness, would entail vast amounts of time in retyping, was not something I looked forward to; I would, in fact, only agree to do so in emergency situations: when I discovered something on my fair copy that was simply wrong or when I felt I had found something so pleasing to add that the additional pain of retyping was worth the pleasure of having it in my manuscript.

And yet, unlike Peter De Vries, who once said that he liked everything about writing except the paperwork, I tend to like the paperwork above all. Writing, I hope it does not depress others to learn, has not only grown easier for me, but I find I enjoy it even more as I grow older. One of the nicest compliments I have ever had was that my writing seemed to show an obvious pleasure in the making; I took this to mean that the author (me) seemed to have a good time setting down the words. I fear it's true. Such cheerfulness about the act of writing, which is supposed to be so exasperating and hideously painful an activity, cannot do my small reputation much good, but there it is.

I remember, as a much younger man, walking down the street shaping sentences in my mind for a composition on which I was then at work, trying out and rejecting phrases and words, when it occurred to-me that mine was a funny kind of life. I produced nothing but words about my observations and reformulated the words and observations of others who had written in the past. I also made up stories. For this I was paid, not handsomely but sufficiently. It's a living. Sometimes I have not been altogether certain whether it was also a life. But since I haven't another in mind, I ought, I decided then and there, to calm down and stay on the job, as Harry Truman once told the servants at the White House whom he found weeping upon learning of his decision not to run again for the presidency in 1952. Besides, by then I had been at it long enough to feel, with Montaigne, that "no pleasure for me has any savour without communication."

"The prospect of fame, wealth, and daily amusement encourage me to persist," wrote Gibbon somewhere in the middle of the composition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When I first came across that sentence, I typed it out and taped it to the side of the black standard Royal typewriter I had used for some twenty years. I acquired that machine, which was probably already twenty-five years old, in trade for twenty-five dollars and a then-new Olivetti portable with an italic typeface that I couldn't abide. I adored--I use the word with forethought--that old machine. I liked the action of its keys, which I sometimes pounded as if I were playing the ending of one of the more dramatic of Beethoven's piano sonatas. I wrote everything but sonnets and suicide notes on it. I had it cleaned fairly regularly, frequently changed its ribbon--Dorothy Parker, a two-fingered typist, allowed that she knew so little about typewriters that she once bought a new one because she couldn't figure out how to change the ribbon on the one she had--and finally I wore it out. The key for the letter d refused to work. I hadn't been aware that over the years I had written so many words with the letter d in them. Damn.

This noble machine was replaced by a sleeker item, as it then seemed, a used IBM Correcting Selectric III. I am apparently someone who needs to be dragged into the future, even on small items. With the exception of indoor plumbing, I remain skeptical about most modern inventions. Gadgetry, in itself, does not much interest me. I was late to have a colored television set; I would like to end my days without a car phone; and, though I now own a machine that plays compact discs instead of records, I continue to like the look and feel of my old albums. I am a sentimental, entirely passive, and in the end inevitably defeated Luddite. What sold me on the IBM was its correcting device, which, allowing one to dispense with Wite-Out for erasures, appealed to my instinct for tidiness. It gave--and continues to give--excellent service. On its beige, metal side I have taped the motto, this one from Henry James, written after his disastrous adventure in writing for the London stage: "Produce again--produce; produce better than ever, and all will be well."

Perceptive readers will already have sensed that this essay is going to get around to its hero's arrival, round-shouldered and squint-eyed, before a computer. Some among them, who count upon me as a stalwart rearguard man and a permanent back number, may be a little disappointed to find me there. I do not seem to myself the very model of a computer man. For years I have made fun of computerese, both in my own mind and in the margins of the papers of students, for whom such language is not jargon at all but of the air they breathe. In place of such words as user-friendly, hands-on, and interface, I continue to say, at least to myself, usure-friendly (which you might call a genial loan shark), pants-on, and in your face.

Writing friends who have gone over to the computer worked at my conversion. All marveled to me about how using the word-processing portion of a computer improved both the quantity and quality of their writing. I listened to them, outwardly polite, inwardly haughty and disdainful. I think I should never have attempted to use a computer had not the university where I teach offered me the loan of a computer for nothing. I took a bite of the Apple (a Macintosh Plus, as it turns out) that many had promised would lead me into the new Garden of Eden, from where I am writing this essay.

I have, for more than a year now, been writing everything but my personal correspondence on a computer. I have not typed out and pasted to the side of this computer, "Man rides machine." (Was it Emerson or some other hyperventilating nineteenth-century author who said that?) After what I am told was the standard two- or three-week terror of "losing" everything one has written and infuriation at one's own initial ineptitude, I came to grow enamored of the computer as a writing instrument. I shall not go on to report, a la the subtitle of Dr. Strangelove, how I learned to stop worrying and love my machine, but candor compels me to report that I have grown fond of the little bugger. Sometimes, at the end of a decent day's work, I have been known to rise from my desk, pat it gently in gratitude, and mutter "Thanks, pal."

I am chiefly grateful to the computer for the splendid possibilities it presents for revision. Working with it, I find myself reworking things, I won't say endlessly and I won't say effortlessly, but with a freedom and ease that I never felt working on a typewriter. This seems to me an uncomplicated and clear gain. The computer also gives me a keen sense of false organization. On what is known as my primary screen--what a friend calls his "primary scream"--I have such handsome categories, or folders, as Essays and Pieces, Lectures and Letters, Snobbery (the butt from that not-yet smoked-out enchanted cigarette), and Stories and Tales (let it pass that I have never written a tale, and seem unlikely ever to do so). I find that I turn on my computer more readily than I used to go to my typewriter, and that I do so at different hours--in the late afternoon, for example--than formerly. I believe I spend more time word processing, if that is what I am doing here, than I used to spend writing.

Yet some of the pleasures are less. I used to enjoy watching my manuscripts grow larger, as their pages mounted up. I rather enjoyed the sound of the typewriter, with its sharp staccato as opposed to the muted clackety-clack of the computer keyboard. (Leroy Anderson, the composer, it may be recalled, wrote a composition titled The Typewriter, which was an orchestral arrangement that featured the sound of someone typing at high speed and which will one day be perfectly incomprehensible to people.) I prefer the noble look of an older typewriter to the portable television-set appearance of a personal computer.

Then, too, the puritan in me sometimes thinks that writing is made too easy on the computer. I guess I believe that writing ought not to be too smoothly turned out. In ways I am not quite clear about, the computer, like statistics, doesn't care who uses it, and seems somehow to have made it possible for bad writers to write even worse. Alastair Forbes, writing in the London Spectator, refers to a recent biography of Anastasia as coming "from the ill-tuned, unmistakably American word-processor" of a writer who, though he may not be shameless, shall here be nameless. One rather knows what Mr. Forbes means. I cannot say exactly why, but a book ill written on a typewriter figures, somehow, to be a bit better than a book ill written on a word processor.

For one thing, the latter is likely to be wordier, more garrulous generally--this owing to the ease with which words flow from the computer. As the television with its many carefully spaced commercials has decreased the national attention span, so has writing on a computer increased the national garrulity. I now often get four-, five-, even six-page single-spaced letters from people who once would have said all they had to say in a letter of a page or two. The great value of the computer lies in its editing and revising function. But the same machine also makes it so simple to add material; it is the great friend of the second, third, and even fourth thoughts on any subject. Press a few keys, manipulate the cursor, clack in a few more sentences, then watch as the paragraphs nicely reshape themselves and the composition you are working on lengthens correspondingly. Imagine Balzac, Trollope, Dickens armed with computers! If Proust, who had a penchant for adding things to his already vast manuscript, had written Remembrance of Things Past on a computer, be would have bad to retitle it "Remembrance of Things Past, Present, and Future, Including Many things Not Remembered at All."

In its editing function--the ease with which nearly endless revisions can be made--lies both the joy and the horror of writing on the computer. One of the most dismaying things about writing is the knowledge that nearly anything one writes can be cut fairly drastically--and then cut again. "You never cut anything out of a book you regret later," F. Scott Fitzgerald told Thomas Wolfe, who had a ferocious cut man--to use the word in a very different sense--in his corner in his editor Maxwell Perkins. The Gettysburg Address has 272 words; my guess is that an aggressive editor could pare it down to two hundred and not many people would notice. An editor in New York used to boast that he could cut the Lord's Prayer in half and improve it in doing so. The computer, of course, lures one to go the other way: not to cut but to add.

So seductive is the computer as a writing instrument that I find myself less and less ready to write without it. I still type my letters. I still write in my journal in longhand. I still travel with two fountain pens and a thick pad of graph paper, in the hope of adding to compositions I am currently working on. But I notice I now turn out less writing when traveling and away from my machine, so accustomed have I become to the ease it affords. (I think of my own laziness here with shame when I consider Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote out his lengthy manuscripts in a minuscule handwriting, the better to hide them from the authorities and make them available in samizdat.) Dragged yet further into the future, I shall doubtless one day before long have to acquire what is called a laptop computer. But I intend to defer it as long as possible. Laptop sounds awfully like lapdog to me. Not altogether clear here, either, who is the dog and who the master. There goes machine, it seems pretty clear to me, riding man again.

The fear in the heart of every writer is the arrival of the time when he must recognize that such magic as he has had has left him and he now writes not only differently but worse. A change in the methods with which a writer works is likely to turn the mind to this possibility. Henry James seemed to undergo no such worry when, in his late fifties, after suffering pain in his right wrist, he started to dictate his books to a series of typists. Some critics have contended that, with this new method of composing, James cut it too fine and began badly to garrulate. Others refer to his new period as Henry James's Major Phase. Who is correct remains in the flux of controversy.

What isn't in the flux of controversy is that the act of writing, even after one drains it of the often false drama some of its practitioners like to give it, retains a strong element of mystery. "Read 'em and weep," say poker players, confidently setting down what they are sure is a winning hand. But you can write 'em and weep, too, or write 'em and laugh, or write 'em and wonder, reverently, from where 'em derive. Whence derives that lilting phrase, that prettily precise formulation, that obliquely subtle observation, that perfectly paced paragraph? Are there more where those came from? Best, perhaps, to shut up and just keep writing.



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Source: American Scholar, Fall92, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p487, 8p.