Friday, October 30, 2009

Pen or Keyboard?

Chris Sullivan over at More Than Fine last week asked his readers whether they used a keyboard or pen or whatever to write, and got a broad array of answers. Chris and I had an email exchange about it, and I got inspired. With this:

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I faced a rather unnerving dilemma. Come September, I would be enrolling in my first journalism course. You had to know how to type. And I didn’t.

So, I asked my parents for an early birthday present, an electric typewriter. I found a self-teaching plan that seemed easy enough to follow. I worked during the day, and every night, I sat at my desk, my teaching plan open, my hands poised over the keys.

I had no social life that summer.

The main thing I learned was where the keys were. Finding the right letters on the keyboard would turn out to be a critical piece of knowledge in Journalism 51, because one typo, one misspelled word, not to mention one style error or one grammatical error or one factual error – one of any of those things – earned you an automatic F on the assignment or the test. “Accuracy’s important,” the instructor would shrug after the class started. Seventy percent of the class was gone by mid-terms.

But that summer, it was me and the typewriter. I learned to hate it, but I kept slogging away. The ultimate result was – voila! – I didn’t learn how to type properly. To this day, I use my two forefingers and my right thumb, and very occasionally some other finger. But primarily those two fingers and a thumb. And I can type about 90 words a minute if I have to.

The sight of this amuses my wife. She knows how to type properly.

However badly I taught myself, it turned out to be sufficient for my journalism classes. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was that my journalism school hadn’t invested in technology in quite some time. The typewriters in our classes were – old (really old) Royal manual machines. You could type easily on those old Royals, as long as your fingers were HAMMERS and you trained yourself to return the carriage at the end of the sentence. And we had to do timed assignments and tests on those things.

They were teaching us early that journalists have to suffer and, as a result, hate anybody who doesn’t have to suffer as much as journalists think they themselves do.

My typing abilities, such as they were, stood me in good stead through college and my first several years in the work world. That is, until I was assigned to write a speech at the company I was working for. I did my research and then started typing on my IBM Selectric (for those of you too young to remember, IBM Selectrics were like dying and going to heaven after the purgatory of manual typewriters). The writing went okay for a while, but then I started running into trouble. I’d type and I’d type, and then it would fall flat. I’d read what I’d typed, and then say it out loud (it was a speech, after all), and it seemed off.

So I wandered off with what I’d typed on paper and then read it aloud. At some point, I realized what the problem was (whatever the problem was), and I stopped, found an available chair and started writing the changes and the text by hand. And it worked.

I don’t know why, but I discovered that my writing of speeches was greatly helped by a combination of typing and writing by hand. The typing parts were the more basic, fact-oriented parts. The handwriting parts were the emotional, more “rhetorical” parts.

I have done this ever since. And now it’s carried over into poetry which, when I consider it, is not so different from writing speeches – both focus on language and sounds, rhythm, “movement” of words, choosing the exactly right word or phrase, and pulling disparate thoughts and pieces of thoughts into a cohesive whole. I write all drafts of a poem by hand. Only when I think it’s about done do I type it. I’ll do very minor editing once it’s typed. But all of the hard work (and it is hard work) is done with a pen. Some poems go through 10 drafts or more; a few are ready to go after only two or three. But most take a lot more. (I also didn’t understand how much “research” often needs to go into a poem, but that’s another story.)

So I can’t really explain all the reasons why, but I’ve found that I write differently when I use a computer and when I write by hand. One is more utilitarian; the other is a more free-flowing, emotional way to write. For me, anyway. The pen allows me to add comments, scratch-outs, add marginal notes. I know Word can do something like this as well, but it takes too long and I find the “Track Changes” feature to be totally confusing.

So in some cases, the pen is quicker than the keyboard.

(This was written almost entirely on a keyboard, except for the first draft of paragraphs two and three.)


L.L. Barkat said...

I always love to hear how people write.

Mostly, I write poems in my head. Well, usually the beginnings of them. Then I sit down and type the rest, whatever comes... and at that point it is a fairly quick process which I think is based quite a lot on my visual sense.

Emotional. I think I can be that anywhere. :)

Billy Coffey said...

I agree, Glynn. When I'm stuck, I always reach for pen and paper. Otherwise it's always the keyboard, only because I can type a lot faster than I can write.

Maureen said...

Oh, what a walk down memory lane this one was! My high school "made" us take a typing class. Most of us got through it and out of it the same way you did. I still don't quite typewrite/type right the way the class was taught; my fingers fly anyway.

I also learned to set type. (I'm in my late '50s.)

My first reporting gig required use of my own typewriter, an Olivetti that I'd used in college. My first professional editing job involving government contract work had nothing but non-self-correcting typewriters. We had to use carbons. Inevitably, someone would make a mark somewhere that required the entire thing to be retyped. The first job involving a word processor that used huge disks. At the next job, where I stayed for almost 25 years, I was back to using non-self-correcting typewriters (these were even more ancient than those in the other job) and carbons. Somewhere in the mid-80s we graduated to real computers and I've been using them ever since. I just switched from a PC to a MAC and wonder why I waited so long.

I used to have to hand-write out everything I wrote, mostly to see how the words looked on the page. Eventually, I found I could visualize my words in my head and now write fast on computer. I might start some poems on sheets of paper that end up so marked up I'm glad I keep a constantly updated computer file as I work. I usually move from paper to computer quickly.

Whether the tool is paper and pen or computer, the first couple of paragraphs or first couple of lines of poetry always seem the hardest.

Anonymous said...

i find this post and the comments just fascinating.

it is so much fun when creative people share how they do things.

i loved the story about teaching yourself to type. that brought a smile.

Glynn said...

Thanks for the comments. Like I said, I give credit to Chris Sullivan for the idea behind this post.

I don't miss that manual typewriter. Not one bit.

Jennifer @ said...

What a delightful post.

I got such a kick out of this:

"They were teaching us early that journalists have to suffer and, as a result, hate anybody who doesn’t have to suffer as much as journalists think they do."

We journalists are a cynical -- dare I say, whiny? -- lot aren't we?

Great, great post. I chuckled throughout.

S. Etole said...

I still have an IBM typewriter which sits in my basement gathering dust ... it was the ultimate after learning on a manual ... one eraser mark and the instructor drew a daisy around it and that was your grade ... an F is an F no matter how creatively it is drawn. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.