Monday, 4 April 2011

What is lost?

I am in the middle of writing a little book report. Literally. I have just broken off because this thought came to me whilst writing a sentence.

I am, of course, using a word processor. But I am old enough to remember when it was written by hand; revised by hand; typed up; corrected and, if needs be, literally cut up and pasted back together in the required order; then retyped; and checked. If you could afford it, you photocopied it. If not you typed a fair copy using carbon paper to create a second copy. And when you had a finished piece, you also had a record of all the changes you had made. If you had the space, you kept it for the day that some institute would bid for your papers so that students could study your technique.

Yet when I was writing my short report just now I was suddenly aware that I had changed a sentence a dozen times before I was happy with it. And all those changes are lost.

Now. I am not arrogant enough to believe anyone would ever want to see the various drafts of my work (and I do still print up and edit by hand with a fountain pen filled with red ink, but I don’t have the space to store old manuscripts). Ten or twelve drafts of a book would easily take up the drawer of filing cabinet. Be that as it may, I did wonder how much is being lost for future generations to consider.

This isn’t an important issue as world events go. Anyone coming upon this little musing in the future should look up the history of the early months of 2011 to see what I mean. But it is about re-inventing the wheel.

Writers know about their craft by reading. They read in the same fashion that locusts move from one side of a field to another. But they are also interested in what other writers think, about how they developed their style, how they tackled particular problems, why they abandoned certain approaches. All this provides a set of tools for writers, maps out pitfalls, and provides a huge resource to chuck in the cauldron and stir in the hope that what they cook up has a unique flavour.

So how much of that is lost now that we can sit at a machine and change a sentence a dozen times before moving one, can cut and paste with a couple of clicks of the mouse, can change a characters name through a 100,000 word script with a few more clicks.

What is lost?

Is anything gained?

Or is it just change and me finding something to be anxious about?


Pom said...

While I haven't thought about it in quite the same way you've presented here (frankly, I'm sure nobody would gain anything by reading my drafts), I do ponder the seeming perfection we present thanks to technology. Without record of thought process or errors, our presentations of our works are edited and tweaked before ever reaching another's eyes without giving access to the processes that got us there thus leaving us seeming rather brilliant. It seems we are no longer permitted to flail at all or recognize struggles in anyone else.

Personally, it leaves me feeling chronically inept in a sea of the adept.

But it is, indeed, the journey and not the outcome that is most important - or so I've been told. Now the journeys are missing...

So if you're only seeking something to be anxious about I suppose I'm inclined to jump aboard and do the same. lol

Graeme K Talboys said...

That, of course, is the other side of the coin. When I struggle with writing, it is always a comfort to go and look at a typescript by someone like Virginia Woolf [not that I own a genuine one - I wish, I could sell it and retire ;-)]. Her typing is appalling.

This appearance of perfection is, I believe, one of the things that has contributed to a devaluing of the worth of the written word. People only usually see the finished product. They have no awareness of the fourteen (or forty) drafts that went before, of the days spent worrying where a comma should go, of the struggle to get the story just right or the phrase containing just the right level of ambiguity, of the research which is necessary but which must then fade seamlesslessly into the foreground of your work...

And that's before you place your baby in front of agents and editors.

vcwillow said...

Merry Meet. I tend to re-write as I go along and though I am sure my work will never be hailed as one of the 'greats', I too find it sad that the style and method a writer uses to reach their final draft is lost. There are so many paths a writer may take and no one is right for everyone but there is comfort, indeed strength to be found knowing you are not alone looking at a mostly blank screen and only three sentences in front of you that you have written, rewritten, edited and pasted a dozen times. The frustration of being a writer I suppose is that it can be quite an isolated task. But maybe the use of technology like on-line blogs and groups are now replacing or should I say co-existing with the old methods by which writers learn their trade.


Graeme K Talboys said...

Indeed, the machine puts us in touch with others as never before - especially those of us in isolated locations.