Thursday, October 4, 2018

Old-School Tech Tests

Zestful Blog Post #284

This beefy post is the first part of a feature I wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine's November/December 2018 issue, themed ‘the throwback issue.’ I believe it’s hitting subscriber mailboxes now; should be on newsstands now or soon. I had a great time writing this, and have already heard happy comments from enthusiastic readers who write.

[Excerpt begins]
I’m an analogue girl in a digital world. I like old things and old style. I used a rotary-dial phone until the march of progress threatened to crush us both. My car just celebrated its twenty-fourth birthday. I like canvas sneakers, gin martinis, and homemade afghans.

But I’m a writer in contemporary times, and I’ve adapted to new technologies. Frankly, most of it has been a blur. I do remember, though, sitting alone at night in an office building sometime in the 1980s, watching my boss’s printer slowly excrete 200 pages of random ASCII characters. For all I knew, the computer was trying to tell us something. I sent the pages to the tech guys at headquarters for analysis. They still haven’t gotten back to me.

Fast-forward to now, when miniature microphones and voice-to-text software literally enable us to write as fast as we can talk. I understand the next phase is nearly upon us, where a machine will write my novels for me. And no doubt publish them, collect royalties, and spend the money on nice things for itself.

But I feel it’s time to ask: Is more tech necessarily better? Is faster better than slower? Is more output worthier than less? Is the destination more important than the journey?

With those questions in mind, I took it upon myself to investigate. To re-immerse myself in the materials and sensations I used to enjoy so often—and also to experiment with even older methods—I spent a weekend working on my current novel using an assortment of technology that originated between the building of the Sphinx and opening night of “My Fair Lady.”

On Saturday morning, I settled down at my writing table, a mug of coffee at my side and a wood-cased pencil in my hand. I chose a Blackwing 602, known for its smooth core and fragrant cedar casing. (I’d decided to skip inscribing words on stone or wet clay tablets and start with the next writing technology most closely related to those, graphite.)

Pencil sharpening is an act of beginning. You sit down, you gather yourself, you sharpen. You feel and hear the sharpener working—whether a cranker or handheld—and you smell that fresh wood. You behold your newly exposed graphite. If the point is sharp, you feel brief anxiety over whether the microscopic conical top section will break off as you touch it to paper.

I enjoy the deliberateness of the pencil experience. As you write, the point degrades to whatever degree of dullness you feel like tolerating. You rotate the point to take advantage of the wear pattern—every rotation offers a sharper edge.

When you write with a pencil, you are in a very real sense, drawing. You’re laying down the two-dimensional images of words. You can write little or big; with light pressure or hard; you can print carefully or race along in whatever version of cursive is yours.

You can erase mistakes! But if you’re on a tear, you can just strike through with vigor and keep going. Or you can flurry down a satisfying storm of obliterating zigzags. The re-sharpening pause is a balm. While sharpening, you have a chance to look up, change the focal length of your gaze, quit thinking for a moment, and use your hands differently.

I wrote about a thousand words with the Blackwing 602, savoring its straightforward sturdiness. You don’t have to baby a pencil; you can leave it lying around; you can even lose it without too much grief. You can write with it in a canoe or on a mountain ledge, or upside-down while lying in bed. No worries about ink, mechanisms, batteries.

The assortment. 

Mid-morning, I skipped ahead in time and unholstered my trusty plastic Pentel automatic, with a .7mm lead, in the relatively soft and bold 2B grade I like. The obvious advantage of the automatic pencil is no sharpening, no bother. You click a button or twist the barrel to advance your lead, and you can write fast and precise. The writing experience is less varied, though. That’s the price you pay.

With any pencil, one must bring some pressure to bear, which puts wear and tear on you. My writing elbow got sore after a few hours of pencil work.

After lunch I turned to a group of instruments you have to dip in ink, that marvelous liquid humans first concocted in Neolithic times. Hollow reeds served as writing tools in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East. They’re still used for drawing and special calligraphy.

I’d found a reed pen in my art box, so I started with that. It was a seven-inch-long wand about half an inch in diameter and cut to a quill-like point. I opened a bottle of black Noodler’s ink, dipped the reed in, and started writing. I blobbed too much ink down at first, then got the hang of making bold strokes.

I had to reload with ink every few words, however. Because of that, and apart from the novelty, the experience was wearying and just not practical. I perceived how a fine reed with an expertly-done point—and a halfway experienced scribe—could work some beauty.

Writing with a quill didn’t go much better. I’d found a large feather during a walk a few years ago and saved it. Now, following an online tutorial, I made a writing point from its shaft. Like the reed, the quill emitted an ugly blot before scratchily producing a contiguous line. After about ten words, it ran dry. I reloaded and kept going, but the work went slowly and vexingly. Thinking about the fact that Shakespeare wrote all of his plays with such an instrument made me nearly sick with pity. But life was slower then, and I think everybody had more patience.
[This is the end of the excerpt. For the rest of the article, hustle out to your favorite newsstand and pick up the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest magazine.]

What do you think of old-school writing tech? Do you have favorite tools and practices? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments. [Photo by ES]
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  1. I love my pencils, mechanical included, and selfishly hide them from the wandering fingers of my family. I also love an old-fashioned, paper planner -- which I always mark in pencil, of course! However...when I think about the very old days of typewriters and carbon paper and the horrid tasks of making changes (i.e. re-type it), well, I must admit I'm in favor of my computer keyboard and WORD. Just saying... (and also showing my age)

    1. Oh yes, new tech is best for revision. Thanks for stopping by, Frances!

  2. I read the longer version of this fascinating article in Writer's Digest. I love pencils and pens and paper, including notebooks of various kinds, but as you pointed out, nothing beats a good Word file for the many revisions that happen. I found the 'Consumer Reports' style of this article both entertaining and relatable. Another great piece, EZ!

    1. Thanks, Beej. The new editor, Tyler Moss, told me he was open to new directions with the magazine, so I thought of this. Very happy to have the freedom to do it! And thanks for your enthusiasm.

  3. I love writing with a pen turned by my spouse and a moleskin notebook. That's when I feel most relaxed and creative. The answers to your questions, "Is more tech necessarily better? Is faster better than slower? Is more output worthier than less? Is the destination more important than the journey?" are no, no and no. Thanks for another great blog.

    1. You're welcome, and thanks, Bev. I bet that pen feels great in your hand!

  4. I do all my writing in a lined notebook with a Pilot G2 bold gel pen. Then I type it into an Open Office document for spell check and editing before transferring it into the WordPress editor for publishing on my blog. Time consuming, but all part of my enjoyment of writing my poetry. I enjoyed your Writer's Digest article!

    1. Walt, sorry I didn't see this until now! Thanks for stopping by. I like the Pilot G2s a lot too.

  5. I love writing with a pen. Writing with pen help me keep focusing on new things that make me creative and energetic. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks for sharing this blog.This post is very nice.I read the longer version of this fascinating article in Writer's Digest. I love pencils , pens and paper, including notebooks of various kinds, but as you pointed out, nothing beats a good Word file for the many revisions that happen.write for us


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