I'm in a frenetic mood -- mode? -- this week, as I get ready to leave L.A. for a spell to teach, or, really, facilitate a fiction writing workshop at the Sewanee Young Writer’s Conference, at Tennessee’s University of the South. I’ll be there a couple of weeks, with aspiring scribes who are the age of most YA readers, and who want to grow up and write the stuff. Fictional stuff. Be storytellers in an age that is simultaneously overrun with stories that keep us stuck in place, and far too few that seem able to guide us through the precipice.
And while I've been reading up for the class (and discovering a few surprises I'll be writing up here in the months ahead), what is that we mean by being "a writer" anymore? Does it mean making books? After all, if the implements you use affect what (and how) you write, so too the implements on which you read. Yes?
“Different tools shape words differently, the way different tools build furniture and shoes differently.... Pen and paper are slow and messy, of course. Modernity loves speed and claims to hate mess. But speed is only a value when it's useful, and it isn't always useful. Slowness can be useful too. Using an instrument that doesn't let you go too fast can make you pause where you might not have, and a pause at the right time can change or even save your life, not to mention your work.”
The quote is from writer Michael Ventura, who’s written a couple screenplays, underappreciated fiction, and who works most often as an insightful, usually brilliant, essayist. He did this for years as a columnist for the LA Weekly, and now plies his trade for the Austin Chronicle.Ventura was writing, in “The Tools of an Animal,” about how different implements affect the texture of one’s work -- the very way the words are realized on “the page,” whether a literal one or an electronic construct.
Writing by pen creates one sort of pace, a certain kinesthetic relationship to the work, whereas, he notes, using a typewriter causes a different relationship between teller and tale. And finally, composing on computer keys creates yet a different music to the words.
You might have the same story in mind approaching each type of tool -- yet it will come out differently, even if subtly so, depending which one you choose. When writing long-form fiction, I mostly compose on “screen” now, though often hand write drafts of scenes on backs of scrap paper when I’m “stuck.” So I blend handwriting with the keypad. Does it work?
I think I’ll know for sure when I finish my own two current books.
But if you grow up reading a lot of books, you get used to the way a page scans, the rising and falling rhythms of a “chapter,” and how those chapters fall together in a sequence. If you read on a screen, and are used to flicking pages with your finger, the -- that word again -- kinesthetic sense of the story will be different for you. Not “worse” -- but different.
If you’re writing a “flashnovel”say, - with installments delivered to your Smartphone (as they do in Japan) -- do actions rise and fall in the space of whatever text fits on a screen?
You learn to write, in part, by what -- and how -- you read. Consider movies, which we’ve had more than a hundred years now.
Originally, films were essentially recorded versions of stage plays. Then someone -- D.W. Griffith? -- realized you can move the camera, and you have “the close-up.” And suddenly film takes on its own language, which in turn is ratcheted up by the pace of TV, then music videos, and now, perhaps, by everything you watch online.
All of which affects narrative everywhere else, including, of course, what we mean by “book." And now that books are more frequently sharing the portable screens we watch those same movies and TV shows on, even the idea of “book” is changing, even if no one can quite name what it's changing into.
We haven’t even discussed how voice recognition software might further change the act of composition.
Meanwhile, I’ll report back from Tennessee about what teaching fiction to the intended audience for most of the stuff written up here, is really like.
A different version of this is forthcoming in SCBWI's "What the Tech" column