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Composition Books: Confessions of a Luddite

Recently I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to technology (or lack thereof). While I’m a notch or two short of a pure Luddite (I do drive, I can’t avoid a computer screen and maintain employment), I find myself distrustful of technology at best, and as a writer dismissive of it completely.

In using the word “technology,” by the way, I’m referring to our common understanding of it—gadgetry. I’m not a gadget guy. No GPS (I use maps). No iPad; no iPhone; no iAnything. I refer to my cell phone as my “terrorist cell”—you know, one of those pay by the minute jobs you get at 7-11. It’s always off and I only buy minutes about twice a year. Also—and most pertinent here—I almost always write fiction by hand. My row of heavily used composition books stretches across an entire book shelf.

As an instructor of composition (among other societal ills) I often have my students broadly define technology early on in the semester. And yes, I have them do so in a composition book. They usually come up with something like this: “anything that helps us make life easier.” This insight usually casts a pensive shadow upon the otherwise chirpy class. Yes, refrigerators do help make life easier. Yes, it’s nice to have a washer and dryer—life would be much more difficult without them. Yes, Microsoft Word certainly is a nice invention; I wouldn’t want to use one of those clickety-clack typewriters of yore. They are grateful.

However, in practice Millennials can be twitchy and impatient, ready to draw out their ubiquitous smart phones during any thirty second lull. The most popular Millennial maneuver is in-pocket texting, a practice which makes me (and many others in the educational sphere) see some dark shade of pedagogical red. Physically a textaholic might occupy a seat in my classroom, but mentally they are over the social networking rainbow.

Here’s my writerly beef with gadgetry distilled to its essence:  it doesn’t make my writing life easier. Sure, it does help if I’m walking around a city and need to find a restaurant, if I need to call a friend, if I want to bid on a pair of Nike LeBron 9 iD on eBay whilst walking down 19th and M Street. However, the reason I write by hand has to do with the fact that writing well takes laser-like focus and attention. Gadgetry offers just one more layer of annoying distraction. My landline and HP desktop offer more than enough, thank you kindly.

One of my writing buddies asked me recently: but doesn’t this make your writing inefficient? Perhaps, but when I type up my handwritten work I find myself also tweaking what I wrote. My writing process simply adds one more layer of revision—which never hurts. At any rate, who said writing should be efficient? When I was writing my forthcoming novel, I never thought Today I must pound out 3,000 words. I wrote what I could on a given day—by hand, mostly sitting outside on my patio. Sunlight is good.

NaNoWriMo has positive benefits, but its one negative side effect is devastating: writing should not be measured by quantity alone. A novel is not a sack of rice measured by the pound. In fact, I would say that the NaNoWriMo-ification of writing has to do with the fact that currently there is a bevy of writers in our society, but who is taking the time to read what is actually produced? This is a problem. So, I like to sloooooow down. To parallel the slow food movement, there needs to be a slow writing movement. Turn off the iPhones and focus on the page. I suspect that some writers gadget-up to avoid the shackles of writerly loneliness. Nothing wrong with this—writing is lonely. However, I prefer my writerly loneliness unshaken and unstirred.

Sorry, I can easily froth myself up into a state of curmudgeonly fumigation. I am a crank at heart. Here’s what it comes down to for me: while I benefitted greatly from my five plus years as fiction editor of The Pedestal Magazine, my several years as editor of The Potomac, and my two year stint as series editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2008, 2009, I now feel once again released back into the world of creation (and the sharing of that creation). Thus this entry.

If I had my druthers, I’d pretty much want to sit in a quiet room and write. And then write some more. I have more novel, story, poem, and essay ideas than I know what to do with. I’ll bring some of them to light here. Blogging—or whatever one might call this—is a good way to make sense of it all (ultimately, I am grateful for the internet as a means to reach a few extra sets of eyes). More importantly, you won’t have to read my chicken scratch. It’s illegible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Source: Pencil Talk

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About Nathan Leslie

Nathan Leslie is the author of seven books of fiction. His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years. His website is www.nathanleslie.com.

4 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Jean Pfefferkorn
    April 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Seems to me that there exists a major difference between writing on a legal pad (a solitary pursuit) and writing on the net, with the social network watching: the temptation towards the derivative. A solitary writer thinks more about writing something on the blank page, less about the audience, while the writer for the social network considers the audience and what friends want to hear.

  2. Kelly Lynn Thomas
    April 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    It’s great to know there are other handwriters out there. I especially like your points about Nanowrimo and writing “efficiency,” Nathan.

    I prefer handwriting to typing for a lot of reasons, but one big one is the physicality it brings to an overwhelmingly mental pursuit: the way the pen feels against my fingers, the scratch of the tip against the paper, the way the pages curl at the edges when I fill them, the crinkling sound as I turn them.

    And the sight and weight of a full notebook is supremely satisfying in a way that a Word document can never be. You can’t even “fill” a Word document–you could go on forever in one of those.

    Handwriting is grounding. Typing isn’t. Of course, typing is incredibly useful (I’m doing right now!) for other things, like revision (although my favorite revision exercise involves printing the story and cutting it into pieces and rearranging them and taping the pieces back together).

  3. Marcus Speh
    May 2, 2012 at 4:38 am #

    I really enjoyed this post. Lately, I’ve gone back to writing by hand, too. A problem here is that I tend to get distracted by my own calligraphy. The confrontation with what I’ve written is a lot more intense when I look at my own longhand rather than the screen. I spend too much time in front of the screen as it is. I’m everything but a luddite, but I’m (again) with you on this one. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Marcus Speh
    May 2, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    PS. Meant to say that the other really valuable message in your post was the insistence on going slowly. The hunt for the highest word count that as you say rightly, underlies the NaNoWriMo challenge and is built into the fabric of online publishing, too, is detrimental to creating anything true. Selling yourself smothers the spirit when the spirit hasn’t fully crystallized around the germ of a story yet. I tend to do all the networking and selling during term when I don’t have the nerve to write anything else but the shortest pieces.