Better Late than Never

What fol­lows is an impromp­tu essay I wrote one year, 10 months, and 22 days ago—the day my type­writer was deliv­ered. It more or less explains why this site has seen so few posts.

For as long as I have been tasked with writ­ing, and espe­cial­ly over the course of the last two years, I have had a ten­den­cy to become lost some­where between con­cep­tion and cre­ation. Rather than sim­ply being at a loss for words or struc­ture, I have been plagued by an inescapable com­pul­sion to “edit in place.” I gave the page a sta­tus of ulti­mate final­i­ty, for which few of my con­struc­tions were worthy.

In an abstract way, I lost my feel­ing for that which I was craft­ing. Words had mean­ing, but the piece had no spir­it that I could detect. Absent a fun­da­men­tal con­nec­tion to the mean­ing of my work, artic­u­la­tion became lit­tle more than a log­ic prob­lem: exer­cise for the mind sym­bol­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ing real­i­ty. My writ­ing process at the time resem­bled object-ori­ent­ed pro­gram­ming far more than any sort of artis­tic expres­sion: words were cho­sen accord­ing to func­tion, sen­tences were for­mu­las designed to return spe­cif­ic results, and para­graphs were con­tain­ing class­es whose sole pur­pose was to group these like results and allow for a smooth tran­si­tion to the next phase of the pro­gram. The pro­gram was com­plete when all aspects of a posi­tion had been accu­rate­ly described. There was no crafts­man­ship here, only the sort of bland engi­neer­ing found in the worst of soft­ware user manuals.

Once I final­ly man­aged to unload my ver­biage onto the page, this process of engi­neer­ing continued—albeit in a dif­fer­ent form. The next phase of con­struc­tion was edit­ing for punc­tu­a­tion which, telling­ly, was my favorite part. Tech­ni­cal mas­tery was all that mat­tered, and there was per­verse plea­sure in uti­liz­ing the oft-neglect­ed semi­colon. Con­cept flow (e.g. the loca­tion of para­graphs) was almost always per­fect, owing to the fact that the para­graphs had been designed as log­i­cal machines rather than expres­sive mis­sives. The end result of all this was a tech­ni­cal­ly sound doc­u­ment, for which I held no pas­sions, which had tak­en at least twice as long to write as it would have were I to have writ­ten from my heart rather than my brain.

A few months ago, I decid­ed to take a break from writ­ing and con­sid­er how I had come to be in this sit­u­a­tion. I soon real­ized that, for sev­er­al rea­sons, the entire sce­nario was the result of my com­pos­ing using a com­put­er. “Of course I pro­gram my writ­ings,” I thought, “I have spent the last six months writ­ing Python and C++ pro­grams with this same key­board!” “It is no won­der I can’t focus on artic­u­la­tion,” I con­tin­ued, “I auto­mat­i­cal­ly asso­ciate sit­ting in this chair with doing three things at once!” It sud­den­ly became clear to me, how I had come to for­get the val­ue of my words: I had uncon­scious­ly labeled them as yet more mean­ing­less elec­trons being car­ried on the wires of my com­put­er’s cir­cuit­ry, none dis­tinct from its neighbors.

That dis­cov­ery made clear to me oth­er prob­lems which stemmed from my use, and knowl­edge, of a com­put­er in my writ­ing process. For the most part, I nev­er fin­ished pieces whose com­po­si­tion was inter­rupt­ed. This was a direct result of my not valu­ing my words; I failed to see any advan­tage to adding to that which was worth­less. Still worse, I nev­er print­ed the pieces I did man­age to com­plete; and I nev­er read them onscreen because they did­n’t feel “real” (a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the “mean­ing­less elec­trons” par­a­digm). These prob­lems com­bined to pro­duce the feel­ing that I had nev­er actu­al­ly pro­duced any­thing in spite of the some­times enor­mous effort I expend­ed. Uncov­er­ing the root caus­es of that feel­ing, which had threat­ened to end my writ­ing career before it began, gave rise to the rea­son­ing which result­ed in this very document.

I sur­mised that what I need­ed most was some­thing to inject a sense of per­ma­nence into my writ­ing. “Sure­ly,” I thought, “an instan­ta­neous per­ma­nent record of what I have writ­ten will elim­i­nate both my ‘in place edit­ing’ and my neg­li­gence with regard to read­ing what I have writ­ten; the page will lose its sta­tus of final­i­ty because fill­ing it is the mea­sure of progress, not the result.” The sim­plest (and most obvi­ous) way to sat­is­fy this need would be, of course, writ­ing by hand. This was not a valid option for me, how­ev­er, due to my spas­tic­i­ty and the awful writer’s cramp it quick­ly gen­er­ates. It took almost no time at all for me to real­ize that a type­writer was the next best thing to writ­ing by hand, and with­in a week I had won an eBay auc­tion for the Olympia Report de Luxe (fea­tured in You’ve Got Mail as the type­writer mod­el with which Greg Kin­n­ear’s char­ac­ter was obsessed) that I am present­ly using to write this. I specif­i­cal­ly want­ed a type­writer (instead of the more recent­ly devel­oped word proces­sor) because it seemed pos­si­ble that I might use the pre-print­ing dis­play of a word proces­sor as a means to “edit in place.”

The $60 cost of this machine has proved to be mon­ey well spent, as I have felt a real con­nec­tion to the words typed from the moment I first test­ed its func­tion­ing. Case in point, I am con­fi­dent that I could nev­er have man­aged to write this piece using my com­put­er. Some­where in the feel­ing of the keys’ resis­tance to my fin­gers’ impo­si­tion and the seem­ing­ly thun­der­ous noise of the page being struck, there is a spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion made between my liv­ing brain and the slaugh­tered trees upon which I expound my musings…a con­nec­tion the likes of which I doubt any author could write without.

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