Mind over Matter: The Artist and The Choice of Tools

Caravaggio, St. Jerome Writing
Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence as you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.... Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm[.]
~C.S. Lewis

I think typing everything on the computer leads to a more transitory relationship to the words themselves, they are so easily deleted, they haven’t ‘bled’ on the page the way written words do, but that impermanence gives the writer more freedom while editing to completely transform the piece.

This week, the blogalectic has taken up an endlessly-debated question: should writers prefer pen and paper as native to the literary art, or is it all right to upgrade to the typewriter or—heaven forbid—the computer?

The difficulty with this question is that it's impossible to answer with general finality, though Lewis may be right about the typewriter. Alongside the clacking keys, all typewriters I've ever known interrupted the typist at the ends of lines with the bell and mechanical racket of the carriage return. If my choice were between writing by hand or by typewriter, I'd certainly stick with the former.

Thanks to basically holistic ideals, I'd like to believe in a firm, earthy connection between working materials and quality of the art produced thereby. To a certain extent, I do; it's just that the computer works better for my writing than anything else.

C.S. Lewis never used a non-clacking laptop keyboard. Nor did he have access to a backspace key, which turns out to be useful for those of us who rarely finish sentences the way we intended to when we began them. Writers who favor pen complain of losing digitized thoughts to deletion, but I've almost never had to; if a cut phrase or scene becomes necessary, it's usually preserved in a spare file. My deleted-text document for the last few drafts of my NaNoWriMo novel is over 70,000 words, nearly as long as the novel itself.

For better or for worse—possibly for both—the modern computer interferes little with thought, rhythm, or idea. There's no shift or clanging at the end of a line. The writer can absorb himself directly into the text, provided he doesn't have to concentrate on typing. Worlds and characters take form in the mind; digital technology simply removes some of the barriers between creation and the record thereof. Pen-defenders argue that handwriting forces the writer to slow down and think through things, but the pen is not an editor, and the important matter is that the thinking through happens.

Best of all, the computer-written draft stays neat and orderly; there's no scratching out half a page and having to pore over the lines to figure out which words are still part of the work and which aren't. Additions can be inserted without tight scribbles in the margins or attached sheets of paper. Spelling and grammatical errors are easily fixed, and if the writer—like Oscar Wilde—spends all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in, he can accomplish the operation without eraser crumbs or Liquid Paper.

All this fails to answer the question generally; it only shows what works for me, though perhaps it may also help explain why so many of us go on using the computer when so many authors argue forcibly for the old-fashioned pen. But Masha offers one further question:
I do wonder, in my more judgmental moments, whether writing solely on the computer has contributed to the huge number of badly written, barely edited books coming out on the market. I know I edit less when I see my writing on a screen instead of a page, and I know that the ability to put so much down, so quickly, with no fear of running out of space has encouraged me to over-write at times. But I don’t know how much of this is due to my own personal weaknesses as a writer and how much is due to the influence of technology.
Through work in a department that revived and digitized old texts, I've seen amusingly dreadful stuff that made it into print ages before the coming of Smashwords, Amazon, or high turnover at publishing houses. Badly written books are too funny to trouble me, or history, very much. Barely edited ones are more irksome; ideally, editors would have the time, numbers, and longevity to stop more authors from using "may" where they mean "might", and to order more rewrites on books that start out strong and fade in the middle. I doubt those troubles are directly due to working on computers, though the many indirect effects of technology upon the pace of life may be involved.

I suggested this topic, but now that I sit down to write about it, the debate over pen versus computer just seems unimportant. The prima materia is in the artist's mind. The influence of mind and body upon each other may naturally work out to a preference for certain tools, but preference comes secondary to proper care and training of the main instrument.

If the artist knows his craft, puts in rigorous hours and years of practice, and becomes so intimate with the work of creation that the practical aspects come as easily as walking or driving a car, it won't matter how he works. And when he has his choice, he'll work the way that works for him.


  1. This subject is eerily relevant to me.

    I've recently--as in the past few months--switched my rough-draft writing to pen and paper. This is a practice I haven't done since elementary days, since before my family owned a computer. I blame it on the age I grew up in: in middle school and beyond, I had access to Word and instant publication on Fanfiction.net.

    But I've noticed, now that I am seriously pursuing a career as a writer, that it is hard for me to conceive of a story in a Word Document. Mainly, because it is too fast. As I am typing now, just in stream-of-thought sentences, I have no problem with the pacing. But in a novel of which I am not yet convinced of the direction, which seems to have a mind and intentions of its own, I am actually writing BETTER by slowing it down, taking the time to form a sentence, writing each word deliberately. And then, of course, it helps that when I go to transfer the written rough draft onto the computer for a typed second draft (and I do this every few days), I am then able to edit as I copy, and make a much better rough draft as an unintended but helpful consequence.

    Oh, and here's something: I have never, ever written a rough draft poem except with pen and paper. I don't think I know how typing it out would even be possible.

    1. Very interesting! I don't write song lyrics on the computer, either. That's pretty strictly a pen-and-paper proposition.

      What you're speaking of with novels and pacing and finding yourself writing better--I think that's what a lot of people find. I admire that. It doesn't work that way for me because my mind is obsessively slow and ponderous of its own accord; when I write by hand, it tends to collapse under the weight of the combined slowness. I have a hard time writing stream-of-consciousness, even in the unedited privacy of my typed journal.

      But I'm always a little envious of the people who DO work better by hand. It would sure make it easier to keep off the internet while writing. ;)

  2. you type your journal!? wow..I've never been able to do that. I know it technically is more secure in it's privacy than a little book hidden away, but in my mind it would never be safe from prying eyes, and despite the fact that the only other reader in our house is Seth, and he is untempted by journals, I am still uber privacy obsessed.. I don't know why, you'd think I was still 13.

    I do know what you mean about a slow mind collapsing on a slow process.. I've reread drafts where somehow I've managed to write the same things three times, only slightly different, and then skipped ahead.

    But in general I do write better by hand, in part because I take myself more seriously in the process.

    Good post!

    1. Haha, I know EXACTLY what you mean about being privacy-obsessed. And no shame here--there's a part of me that is totally still 13. I live in thorough dread of the site I use screwing up its privacy settings and making all posts publicly visible all of a sudden. But I journal more if I'm able to type, and sometimes, a girl just needs to pour out her feelings. ;)

      I think you hit the point head-on with "...because I take myself more seriously in the process." Or maybe it's taking the process more seriously. Whatever it is, I feel like I'm just playing around if I'm not at my computer. Chalk it up to years of working technical jobs, maybe! :P But I definitely envy you the need for prettily-bound little notebooks and a favored pen... I used to work that way, but now the only thing I use pretty notebooks and favorite pen for are my to-do lists, which aren't nearly as romantic.

    2. Okay, confession time. I hoard pretty, romantically bound journals, and hardly use them. It's a costly hobby. I tend to keep journals more when I'm traveling, or for prayer. I've been so bad about keeping to poor Afon's baby journal.

  3. I hoard them too!! Because I think "Ooh, THIS will be the journal that I write for posterity! The deep, meaningful, beautifully written journal, and so I wait until I give in to temptation and ruin the pretty journal with lots of not deep or meaningful ramblings.. I didn't even attempt a baby journal, it isn't because I don't care, it's just because I didn't think of it. :)

    Once I've ruined a pretty journal, it ends up with lots of to-do lists as well. But yeah, journalling is essential. Because when I actually pour out my feelings, it definitly isn't for public consumption. ;)


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