I confess to being something of a Luddite. When I see a technological innovation that will help me do something I already do easier or more efficiently or better, I will grab onto it. But I am not one who grabs every new thing that comes along only to spend a lot of time looking for something to do with it.
And so it was with some amusement that I read some time ago about a fancy new “writing tool” for your computer that has so many “powerful” gizmos and gadgets it practically writes books all by itself. Like many things related to computers, the people pushing it (or justifying their use of it) fall all over themselves with praise almost to the same extent they trip the rest of us up with jargon like “feature-rich” and “robust.”
Wow. What is it that makes us want to turn a simple job like writing (at least in terms of getting the words down) into something so complicated?
Somehow, mankind has managed to write for far longer than we can remember, beginning with scratching characters in clay (a method which still works, should we care to employ it, whereas today’s fancy “writing tools” will likely be obsolete long before you are). Today, with the English language, writing is really nothing more than wrangling the 26 little letters of our alphabet and a few punctuation marks. That’s all. It’s as simple—and difficult—as that.
The thing is, paying attention to what those letters say on the page is infinitely more important than how we get them there.
I am certainly no expert at writing. But I know, and know about, lots of writers of great accomplishment; some are authors of dozens, scores, even hundreds of books. And few, if any, of them seem to worry much about the process of writing.
Instead, they worry about the result.
Most seem content with ordinary word processing programs, which, nowadays, means Microsoft Word more often than not. But I have a good friend from up the road, Michael Zimmer, who writes top-notch, intricately plotted novels about Western America using that old swaybacked workhorse, Word Perfect. Paul Zarzyski, a lauded poet, writes his poems on a used, manual, baby-blue portable typewriter he’s used since his college days. Loren Estleman, whose garage is brimming with literary awards for his many mystery and Western novels, likewise writes them all on a manual typewriter. Then there’s Wendell Berry, whose numerous books, from poetry to novels to essays to nonfiction, were and are written in longhand, with a number two pencil, on a yellow notepad.
And so on.
Twenty-six letters. That’s all it takes. You can either arrange them well, or you can’t. If you can, you’re a writer. If you’re not, all the fancy tools in the world won’t make you one.