Monday, January 08, 2007

Means of Composition

Wendell Berry has written famously of his own composition habits. He uses paper and pencil, takes these instruments with him to the woods, or elsewhere, and therefore can write virtually anywhere without requiring fancy forms of technology.

Now Richard Powers, apparently no neo-Luddite, writes, "Except for brief moments of duress, I haven't touched a keyboard in years. No fingers were tortured in producing these words--or the last half million words of my published fiction. By rough count, I've sent 10,000 e-mail messages without typing. My primary digital prosthetic doesn't even have keys."

Powers uses, of course, not a living anamneusis, but rather voice recognition software. He extols its virtues in a recent column in the New York Times Book Review.

Both writers believe their means of composition is integral to their craft. Both are wonderful writers. How can this be?

Well, I have typically been a QWERTY composer myself. I have never experimented with alternative keyboards of voice software-- nor have I had much luck writing long-hand. I can't read my own hand-writing later, and my hand cramps up.

So I type. I imagine a lot of wonderful writers also type on normal old keyboards on computers. Some others may still pound things out on a typewriter. For all I know, some great author still uses a quill and ink.

In any event, the means of composition do matter. I find that I am constrained to writing, and can only write at length (or with any kind of quality) when I am seated comfortably at a good computer and keyboard. This means I generally can't compose in a lot of places Berry can easily. That's a problem. It would be good to have his range.

I can't imagine being constrained the way Powers is. Writing is verbal, he's right about that, but it's also visual. I'm write about that (just read that last sentence a few times).

In any event, it would be interesting to hear where, when, and how we all write...


  1. Hi Clint! Long time. I prefer computer writing as it goes faster than longhand and I can edit as I go. Not being familiar with the people you mentioned in your post, I wonder if they are each from a different generation from us. I'm sure people 10-15 years younger than I am are way more comfortable typing text messaging style than I am, for example.
    Take care!

  2. Yes, messaging style cuts time. And there is also voice email (or some such) that cuts out the voice recognition part. My DH started getting these at work, much to his annoyance, since 1) he had to call in the computer guru to set up the computer to receive them, and 2) they take longer to listen to than it takes to skim text and delete it. For some reason, he gets email memos from everybody at work even though 95% don't apply to him. That sure doesn't save time.

  3. Anonymous10:02 AM

    I typically compose at a computer keyboard, although I find I don't sit down and write until the brain has done most of the work. And in the case of sermons, I have only written down two sermons (which were story-based) in the past two years or so. And those sermons were composed mainly in my head and I wrote them down in order to capture some of the imagery and phrases that were in my head at the time.

    However I have also flirted with the idea of getting a keyboard for my PDA and that would allow me to compose just about anywhere... I wish I could say that would make my blogging more frequent. :)


  4. Hi Anne and others. Yeah, I think I'm stuck with a keyboard, although I'd like to try and teach myself to write by hand more regularly...

  5. Hi Clint, et al. I find that idea generation and analytical thought flow best when I'm moving, but synthesis and ordering happen best at the keyboard. So, I carry a tiny audio recorder for voicenotes and plug it into the laptop in the evening to be transcribed (Dragon NaturallySpeaking). The result is the substrate for the real work of writing which seems to flow a lot easier when the basic points have already been thought out. Yes, you're right, I'm often called a geek.