Computers And Society
David D Thornburg,
The Processed Word
My craft (such as it is) is writing. I write for a living, and I am
able to live from my writing. I used to do other things for income, but
when it comes right down to it, I am entranced by the power of words
and by the ease with which two simple substances-paper and ink-can
combine to form documents that can cause laughter, pain, joy, fear, and
Pretty magical, this writing business.
Of course, as a writer, I have assembled a modest
collection of writing tools-pads of paper, pens, typewriters,
terminals, computers-the usual stuff.
One question writers ask from time to time is how
their tools influence (dare I say determine?) what they write. Some
critics argue, for example, that no great artistic works are going to
be created on a word processor. These critics go on to suggest that the
only good writing is done with tools like pencils, or perhaps
Thornburg has used several word processors to write 11 books,
including The KoalaPad Book, Computer Art and Animation (a Logo book
available in versions for the TI, Radio Shack, Atari, and Commodore
computers), and Exploring Logo Without a Computer (published by
Addison-Wesley). His whimsical look at computing (101 Ways to Use a
Macintosh) has been published by Random House. Later this year, his
first book on artificial intelligence applications in Logo (Beyond
Turtle Graphics) will be published by AddisonWesley. Thornburg welcomes
letters from readers, but regrets that he is not able to answer all his
mail. Correspondence should be sent to him in care of COMPUTE!.
In The Mind
These critics are confusing the tool with the result. The word
processor will create no works of art at all. I use mine six hours a
day, and it has yet to create anything of its own in its spare time.
But then again, I don't expect my pens to create anything, and I am
sure that our ancestors didn't expect wonders from sticks pressed into
fresh mud, either.
Why the literary critics have missed the point
eludes me. It probably comes from their own lack of exposure to a good
word processing system. In fact, good writing takes place in the mind,
not in the pen. I do my writing without ever lifting a pen, and then
use whatever tool is at hand to transcribe this writing onto paper. Do
my writing implements influence what I write? Perhaps they do, but only
to a very small extent. (For example, I wouldn't be writing on this
topic if I didn't use a word processor.)
As a writer, I have found that there are other
factors that are much more influential than my choice of transcription
tools. The first of these is exposure to good writing. I don't know any
good writer who doesn't spend time reading other authors' books.
Wherever I write, I have shelves lined with the works of others. Many
of these books are technical and many are not. The shelf containing
computer books also contains the works of Shakespeare. Aristotle shares
shelf space with my Apple Logo manual. Exposure to good writing can be
very important to an author-any author.
The second factor that I find as important as any
other is having a good place to do my writing. I can write almost
anywhere (on airplanes, for example), but my best writing comes when I
am in a special place that is conducive to creative thought.
Each Its Own Charm
I am most fortunate to have three places that are conducive to writing.
The first is a condominium high in the hills south of San Francisco.
From my living room I can look into a verdant ravine, and trees fill my
sight for as far as I can see. Further south, in an unused school in
Mountain View, I have a rambling office that looks out on mulberry
trees. The pitched roof of this office lends a certain resonance to the
room when the winter rains beat against it. Inside, the spacious area
has a warmth that encourages thoughts to flow. My third special place
is in Monterey, in sight of the ocean. With wooded trails nearby, and
miles of beach to explore, I find this area to be very encouraging to
the creative process.
Each of these places has its own charm, but they all
have one characteristic in common. In each of them I can find the quiet
and solitude that seems to be important to me. When I am writing, I can
tolerate no distractions-no background music, no telephones, no
conversationnothing, save for the sounds of the birds, or seals, or the
rustle of the leaves, or the patter of the rain.
So if you ask me to identify my most important tools
as a writer, they would be access to the writing of others, and a quiet
place in which to write.
So what about the technology of transcription?
Doesn't it have a role?
Of course it does-but its role is largely neutral or
negative. What I mean is that I am rarely liberated by my writing
instruments; I am often impeded by them. As a tinkerer I am forever
buying new pens, papers, word processors, and other tools, looking for
ways to facilitate transcription. This is a highly personal quest. Some
writers can dictate their manuscripts into a tape recorder. I cannot.
Some writers prefer to use only No. 2 pencils and yellow legal pads. I
The point is that there is no one best transcription
tool, just as there is no one best writing style, or one best author.
While my use of tools changes from time to time, my
process for transcribing a manuscript is roughly the following:
My first draft is often (but not always) written in
longhand with a (gasp!) cheap fountain pen in a blank book or legal
pad. I persist in using a fountain pen because I like the feel of it
gliding along the paper. I don't like changing ink cartridges, but I
tolerate this inconvenience.
Why, in this age of computers, do I horse around with buggy whip
technology? There are several reasons. First, I need to use a highly
portable writing medium since I don't always know where I am going to
be when I will want to write something. Second-and more important-the
written page is not a page of pure text. It is a graphic document as
well. Words can be underlined, crossed out, and added in the margins.
Ideas for later parts of the document can be jotted down in the middle
of a page and circled to show that they are part of something else.
As I am writing the document, I turn off all
conscious judgment. Spelling errors, grammatical flubs, syntactic
snags, all these go unnoticed at this stage. All I want to do is
transcribe my thoughts. Period.
Once the document is captured on paper, I usually
review it once, and make any large changes that come to mind. Next, I
transcribe my writing into a computer system, either by entering it
into my word processor directly, or by first entering it into a
portable computer that accompanies me when I am on the road.
Both my portable (Radio Shack Model 100) and desktop
(Apple Macintosh with MacWrite)
computers have intuitively simple, virtually modeless, word processors.
Because of what I do as I transcribe my handwritten text into the
computer, it is important that the word processor be intuitively easy
In fact, I have a cardinal rule regarding word
processor selection. I refuse to use a word processor whose manual is
larger than the document I want to create. Since I am not in the
process of compiling an encyclopedia, I have yet to work with WordStar.
The Product, Not The
The task of transcription to the computer is one I undertake myself. I
can't delegate it to a secretary because this transcription process is
another chance to refine what I have written. By the time my document
is in the computer, all that remains is to check the spelling and make
From creation to preparation of a final manuscript,
I usually use several writing tools. I ask something different from
each of them-but I am flexible. I sometimes capture my ideas with a
keyboard instead of a pen, and the results are fine.
As with so many other areas of technology, we need
to separate the tool from the product. The writing product can be
produced in many ways, and it is the function of our tools to make
these ways as easy to use as possible.
A Secret Process
In fact, there are many advantages to using a word processor over a
typewriter. One of the beauties of using a word processor is that it
lets you prepare a letter-perfect document. I find that my writing is
better when the document looks nice. In this regard, the word processor
helps me to be a better writer.
On the flip side of this argument, writers who use
word processors tend not to retain copies of earlier drafts. There may
be some scrib bled notes and a final manuscript, with no documentary
evidence of the process by which one became transformed into the other.
Scholars who are interested in exploring the development of a book will
have a harder time as today's Hemingways create intermediate drafts
that are edited rather than rewritten.
But this shouldn't influence the quality of the
author's writing-it only keeps the process a secret.
Maybe this makes writing a bit more magical!