That’s not writing, that’s keyboarding

That’s not writing, that’s typing.

— Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

A long time ago, just out of grad school, I took a job as a substitute teacher (an experience that makes you think of all the good population control would do for the world) and filled in for a computer science teacher. One of the classes that day was keyboarding; the digital age had killed typing class. (What would Mavis Beacon do?)

Back then, when the Interwebs was a toddler, I was a Luddite of sorts. I wrote all my grad papers on a manual typewriter. Lloyd Arnold’s dust jacket photo of Ernest Hemingway working at a manual typewriter was etched into my brain, a definitive image of the writer at work. I never imagined myself composing on  a computer.

Of course I did. And still do. But obsessive questions linger: Does a writer’s writing change when when he or she switches from a typewriter (or longhand for that matter) to a computer? And how does it change?

Earlier today, as I caught up reading favorite blogs, I ran across this post at Bookslut. Apparently, a new biography of Ralph Ellison suggests Ellison’s writing was shakier when he switched to a computer:

Writing on the computer transformed Ellison’s fiction–both its process and its product. It would be going too far to blame the computer for Ellison’s failure to publish his second novel, but its impact on his writing was complicated and certainly not always positive. Writing fiction on the computer is a qualitatively different experience from writing by other means.

I know my writing is different when I compose on a computer rather than a typewriter. I reread sketches I’ve written on the typewriter and they sound better, at least in manuscript. But, when I’ve rewritten those same passages on the keyboard, they don’t sound right. They sound “written” rather than organic, rhythmic sentences. But then I reread published pieces that I thought at the time sounded great, but that read stiff and mechanical months or years later.

Is it the typewriter or computer that’s changed my writing? Or am I a stiff judge of my own writing? Am I getting better? Or am I the same?


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