Processing words

This entry is part 1 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Just as I was about to compose my Morning Porch entry at this morning, my connection to the internet went down. I had a moment of irrational panic, thinking that I might have to go back to pen and paper to write the poem I wanted to get started on. Then I came to my senses: it’s just the internet! We haven’t lost our electricity, so my word processing wouldn’t be affected.

It’s scary how dependent I’ve become on this technology. It’s really only been since the late 80s that I switched from using a typewriter to a computer. At that time I didn’t have my own computer — that would have to wait until my parents upgraded about ten years later, and I got their hand-me-down. So I was still composing poems on scrap paper until well into the 90s. It was nice, in a way, accumulating all those drafts in a big file box. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment. I rarely ever referred back to previous drafts, though, and I’m not quite sure why I didn’t recycle them.

Poetry writing the old-fashioned way involved scrap paper, as I’ve said. Ironically, almost all of this paper consisted of computer print-outs with one blank side. My dad worked as a reference librarian at Penn State, where the Pattee Library had computers from the 70s on, so from the time I was a kid, I was used to writing and drawing on the back of computer paper. I remember for a number of years, the print side was striped with light green bars, and of course great reams of it were still attached and folded accordion-style, with the tear-off, perforated strips on either side where the tractor feed gripped the paper.

I never got into blank books. In fact, I hated them, because in my few experiments with them, I found myself writing in an affected style designed to require no further revision — but revision, especially for an apprentice poet, is at the heart of serious writing. My drafts on the back of printer paper would each be about three-quarters of the way covered with squiggly cross-outs before I moved on to another draft. (Instead of a straight line, I liked to wiggle my pen as I moved it through a line for an ocean-waves effect.) And although I had a refillable ink pen with an array of nibs, and had learned calligraphy for the Xeroxed nature zine my brothers and I produced when I was in my early teens, for actual writing, nothing but my old sloppy handwriting (printing, actually — I never developed a cursive hand), using a regular ballpoint pen, seemed comfortable.

One peculiarity that perhaps foreshadowed my eventual fondness for the blank screen as a composition medium was my strong preference for unlined paper. This might well have been the result simply of the availability of all that blank-sided printer paper, but I always felt a bit imprisoned by having to write on lines in a ruled notebook. Of course, I was never terribly fond of school, which was where I used lined paper. Poetry for me was an almost exclusively extracurricular activity — probably if I’d ever been made to write it in class, I would have hated it. That said, to this day I do use pocket spiral-bound notebooks with lined pages for jotting down ideas, many of which do end up in poems.

Despite an early admiration of William Carlos Williams — I was introduced to his work by the guy who became my poetry mentor, Jack McManis, when I was 13 — I very rarely let the typewriter on which I composed final-ish drafts influence the shape of the poem. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always felt that the arrangement of words on the page is a fairly trivial matter; the aural shape of the poem is what counts for me. Also, though I took a typing class in high school, I never got any faster than 35 words a minute — and that was with the fancy new IBM Selectric typewriters they had in school. All my college papers were banged out on the same Olympia manual my dad had used at Bucknell in the late 50s and early 60s; the only advance in technology was erasable typewriter bond — so much quicker than using whiteout. So as long as the typewriter was the only other option, of course I’d use pen and paper as much as I could.

I imagine you can see where I’m heading with this. The green letters on a black screen took a little getting used to, but aside from that, once I figured out how much easier typing was on a PC, I put away the Olympia for good. Like a lot of writers, I wasn’t especially impressed by Microsoft Word when I eventually moved to a Windows operating system in the late 90s. WordPerfect 6.0 seemed plenty good enough (and in fact my mother continued to use it for all her writing until just last year, when Dad finally managed to convince her that if would be less work to just learn Word than to continue to struggle with converting from one to another each time she had to submit something. I admire her stubbornness, though). I turn off all the auto-correcting features of Word: the underlines of misspelled words and the grammar suggestions are distracting and often quite wrong, and is there anything more irritating to a poet than being prompted to capitalize the beginning of every line if you don’t want to?

Learning to compose poems on a word processor didn’t happen overnight. For a couple years after I got my own computer, I continued to write first and second drafts by hand. When I did type poems up, I would immediately print them out and then make more pen-and-ink edits to the printed texts until they became virtually illegible, prompting a return to the computer. But I liked that the version on the screen more closely resembled the version I would submit for publication (which I was doing a lot of at the time, blogging not having been invented yet). And of course it’s much easier to make sense of a draft that isn’t all messed up with cross-outs and inserts; I was sold on the convenience of word processing from the get-go. It was just a matter of slowly breaking myself of old habits and getting comfortable with the new interface.

I almost never print anything out anymore, which I regret every time the power goes out and I realize that virtually my entire corpus of poetry is inaccessible to me. But it does save enormously on paper, not to mention file cabinet space. I confess that I almost never save different versions (does it still make sense to call them drafts?) as I go along. My friend Todd Davis once told me that he learned the hard way never to over-write old versions with new ones, after an incident in which he only realized after he’d mailed a poem off to a magazine that the previous draft had in fact been superior. Fortunately, he had happened to email that version to his father, so he was able to recover it, but ever since, he said, he’s been very disciplined about saving each significant version as a separate file. I could definitely stand to become more organized about a great many things, but since I’ve never shared his experience of missing an earlier, discarded draft, I doubt I’ll be adopting this particular practice.

Word processing does have its down side: eye strain and carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, don’t seem as great a threat for pen-and-paper users. Then there’s the whole creepiness factor: I’m really not sure that processing is something I want to be doing to poems! The immediate association is with food processors, which are typically used to turn things into a uniform mush. “I’m still processing that,” we like to say about a new idea, because it makes us sound somehow hipper and more in control than if we merely said we were thinking about it, pondering it, or mulling it over. Just words, maybe. But no one knows better than a poet how much the flavor and connotation of a word can influence the way we feel about something.

So has my consciousness of the fact that I am processing and not merely writing words changed the way I feel about the resulting poems? If so, not nearly as much as the technology itself has changed me. Contemporary North American poets think a lot about process (the noun) because the workshop model of writing instruction has traditionally emphasized attention to the writing and revision process as an antidote to our society’s excessive focus on commodified products. I certainly don’t argue with that focus. In fact, I’d argue further that the electronic manipulation of texts via word processing software has helped me enormously as a writer, by making me far less attached to any given version. As my hesitation about continuing to speak of drafts suggests, I no longer really conceive of poems as going through distinct, identifiable instars on their way to a mature imago; now they are more like pitchers of water from that river Heraclitus warned us about. This attitude helped prepare me for online publishing, where even a published text can remain mutable. The new-found ease of textual modification that word processing represents has therefore turned out to be more than a convenience for me — it’s been a slow revelation.

I’ve begun hassling some friends and acquaintances to guest-blog other installments in a projected series of posts on poets/poetry and technology. If you’re interested in contributing a personal essay about some aspect of poetry and technology with which you’re familiar, please get in touch via the contact page or by email. Every month is poetry month here at Via Negativa, so the series won’t necessarily conclude at the end of April.

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19 Replies to “Processing words”

  1. the workshop model of writing instruction has traditionally emphasized attention to the writing and revision process as an antidote to our society’s excessive focus on commodified products. I certainly don’t argue with that focus. In fact, I’d argue further that the electronic manipulation of texts via word processing software has helped me enormously as a writer, by making me far less attached to any given version. As my hesitation about continuing to speak of drafts suggests, I no longer really conceive of poems as going through distinct, identifiable instars on their way to a mature imago; now they are more like pitchers of water from that river Heraclitus warned us about.

    Amen! That helps me clarify why I compose on a word processor and jot notes elsewhere by necessity and, as an unforeseen benefit, for a refreshing perspective.

    1. Peter, I’m glad to hear this jibes with your experience as well. One thing I didn’t try to work into this post was a comparison with the way poems are shaped and treated in oral traditions. Much as I love books and paper (and it looks as if this series will include at least one post paying tribute to those technologies), I also relish our new-found independence from the false immortality of the would-be authoritative text.

  2. Have you still got those poems on the back of computer print-outs? If you were in a book-making workshop with me, I’d tell you (command you) to get them together and make a beautiful one-off artist’s book out of them.
    How about it?

    1. You mean the tractor-feed stuff? I might, but it would be extreme juvenalia, from my early teens and before. No way am I ever going to let that escape the bottom of the file drawer! (Great idea, though.)

  3. I began writing with pen and paper, moved onto a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter and finally a succession of computers. I’ve read a lot of blogs about people’s preferences but I really am one of those writers who seems to be able to write anywhere and with/on anything. I have always viewed the various machines I’ve worked on over the years as simply tools. I’m the same with cars, they’re machines to get me from A to B and that’s that. I don’t romanticise them.

    I’ve never really been into the whole ‘drafts’ thing myself. I start a piece, be it a poem or a story or a novel, and work on it till it’s finished. I do save backups periodically because it’s a sensible thing to do but that’s it. I have a folder on my laptop with poems-in-progress and ideas for poems but that’s it. I’ll just open up the Word document, fiddle with the piece and either decide it’s done or leave it for another day. I don’t over think the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘processing’ because I really don’t see the difference.

    As for printing out stuff, I always print out my poems but I’ve been doing that since I was seventeen and now I have a very thick binder which always makes me feel good when I pick it up. I rarely print out my novels before I’m done – proofreading is so much easier with a hard copy – but I have printed out several copies of my current work in progress this time and worked on the sheets by hand before inputting the changes. So I don’t have a hard and fast rule for anything.

    My wife and I lost our Internet connection last week – it was our router that was the problem actually – and I have to say we did suffer since we use it constantly to check information but all we did was pick up books and start reading until we realised the problem was probably not with our supplier. If I still wrote by hand I’d still use the Internet constantly to check details, even as a dictionary. I have a shelf – literally – full of dictionaries but I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually looked up anything in one.

    1. Thanks for this meaty comment, Jim. While I obviously share your utilitarian approach to writing technologies, I don’t feel that tools are ever “just tools”; I think they always subtly or not so subtly shape the arts and minds that employ them. The biggest example where literature is concerned is the invention of writing systems, with moveable type as a distant second, comparable in effect I think to the digital revolution under consideration here. How we relate to language changes the less we have to commit to memory, I think — for one thing, memorization favors certain kinds of memorable constructions. With the advent of the Internet and modern search engines, as you suggest, the writer’s job becomes even easier. But taking notes in an analog fashion from paper journals and books leads one to remember more, I think, and therefore to make more connections at odd moments on the bus or in the shower. Now, it seems to me — and I am as guilty of this as anyone — we are out-sourcing some of this brain-labor to the hive mind.

      I totally agree about printing things out in order to proofread. In fact, I print things out even if I just need to give them a critical reading, and advise others in that situation (guest editors at qarrtsiluni, for example) to do the same.

  4. I’ve been ‘word processing’ since 1983, when I bought a Ozzie ‘laptop’ (bigger than a sewing machine with a postage-sized screen). It’s virtually second nature, then. Though I discovered early in my university days that if I did all the research and made my strange notes on one sheet with lots of arrows the essay I wrote straight through was better than the one I tinkered with and have found that to be true of my writing in general. Most of my poems are hand-written in pencil at odd hours and other than adding or deleting a few words or lines here & there are fine and way better than the ones slaved over. The trick is to find those moments in the day when inspiration flows from the Heraclitian jug.

    As for previous drafts, if you’re very trusting of technology, Google documents always saves the entire history of a word processing file, every save is kept, you can see them in a long line with the time and date, each re-openable, and has been invaluable for searching backwards, or seeing previous edits. One can share a document by allowing viewers only, or collaborators. It’s a great service for collaborative work since each participant gets a different colour in the editorial record (& no, participants don’t have to use gmail).

    So I ultimately save everything into Google docs, every book has a folder with its writing and research, beautifully organized, and from there I print out.

    But it’s not paper and a 1.0mm technical pencil with a B lead, soft, easy… it must be hand to paper, a biology of letters and words, streams of thoughts and feelings, images that come from who knows where but which embody us.

    Inspiring post today, Dave! Instruments of writing…

    1. Good to hear about such radically different approaches from my own, and from a much earlier adopter of word processing, too! I’m still a big believer in revision as an always-present possibilty, but I admit I do less of it than I used to, because i guess blogging has made me more impatient to just publish and move on, and more tolerant of imperfections.

      Using Google docs is a very interesting approach, though I’m glad you included the caveat “if you’re very trusting of technology.” I think the problem is not just the technology, but the fact that you’re surrendering ultimate control of your work to a corporation whose terms of service shield it from any responsiblity for accidently or purposefully destroying your work. There have been some well-publicized cases of people waking up to find all their Google accounts (Gmail, Docs, Google Reader, Blogger) frozen because some unknown person managed to convince them that their blogspot site was a splog. But as long as you’re backing up the latest draft to hard drive, it certainly sounds worth it to take that slight risk and use Google docs iin the manner you suggest. An alternative for those who want complete ownership would be to install software on your own server and take advantage of its revisioning system (the blog could be kept completely private, and/or one could simply save works as drafts and not publish them).

  5. I prefer to use plain text editors. Modern word processors are far too distracting. I’d use them only for laying text out into an acceptable layout.

    1. Thanks for making a valuable distinction that I neglected to mention. I should’ve perhaps broadened the focus to digital text editing as a whole, and stressed that word processing is only one form of that. If I revise this essay for publication elsewhere, I’ll certainly add at least a paragraph on this, since over-reliance on word processing is actually a bit of a pitfall for bloggers or contributors to listservs, etc., who don’t understand the MS Word docs are a mare’s nest of weird formatting tags that need to be stripped out via a plain text editor.

  6. I use Wordpad for drafts, because it’s free and quick. If I have to create a document that Word can read, I use Abiword, which is also free, and so far as I can tell does everything Word does, without the monopoly price tag.

    One of my favorite things about word processing is that it lets poems divide (or more rarely, merge) painlessly. I often find that a poem I’m working on is actually more than one poem. Save the doc under a new name, swoosh through and delete the other poem’s lines — and hey presto! Two poems where there was one. I love that.

    I learned word processing on the Unix world’s “vi” editor, which was a bit quicker — far less mouse-based — than the Windows-based editors. I suppose I might still go off to Linux land, eventually, except that I’m probably too lazy.

    A great breakthrough for me was Numenius’s recommendation of Scribus — yet again, excellent freeware — for desktop publishing, i.e. things such as designing brochures or business cards. Before that I tried to do such work on word processors, which can kinda sorta do it, but only at the cost of much hair-tearing.

    The right tool for the right job. There are tons of wonderful, free software tools out there. If there’s anything I’ve learned, working in software for many years, it’s — don’t let your tools push you around. Take the time to find the right ones and learn how they work: you recoup the time thus spent almost at once.

    1. Hey Dale, thanks for putting in a pitch for free software! Almost everything I use was free to me in the sense that it was a gift or hand-me-down (shh!), but I’m still a Microsoft vassal — it’s great to hear from a former Unix user. I sometimes forget, given your extreme conservatism about making any changes to your blog, that you were actually a professional geek in a former life. The advice about not letting the tools push you around strikes me as very sound, and if I had any sense I’d take it.

  7. Pingback: fetish of the outmoded « (p) (b)
  8. good to hear that someone else stuck with WordPerfect for as long as i did – yay mom!

    i don’t write poetry but i do take photographs, digital photographs, that i keep on my computer with a back-up to an external drive. but i rarely print out my photos any more. thinking about some of the points you write about here though has me wondering whether it is not time to start doing so again. thanks for the provocative read.

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