Thursday, February 8, 2018

"The (Technological) Tail Wagging The (Writerly) Dog"

Years ago, at an earlier juncture in our technological development, I attended a Neil Simon play, a man deservedly famous for his punchy, hilarious one-liners.  The play was one of his later, more serio-comical offerings, and as the performance ensued, the play’s central character, “The Mother”, related an extended anecdote, concerning a memorable moment in her life.  It went on for about ten minutes.

Somewhere around the seven or eight minute mark, I leaned over to my theatergoing companion and whispered,

“Neil Simon got a computer.”

That’s what happens.  Inevitably.  Which should probably appear in the previous sentence but I was unsure where to put it so I made it separate.  Can you imagine if I were chiseling this on stone – at a time when the phrase “It’s not written in stone” made no reasonable sense – I write, “That’s what inevitably happens”, then have second thoughts, believing it should actually be, “That’s inevitably what happens”?  I’d have to throw out that tablet and begin the arduous chiseling process again, an activity substantially more frustrating had the troubling phrase arrived in the final sentence of the document. 

“You can’t just shave off the bottom of the tablet?”


I chisel the whole thing again, and then belatedly think, “That’s what inevitable happens” or “That is what inevitably happens”?  Should my conundrum compel me to make that “essential” adjustment –

Say hello to “Stone Tablet Number Three.”

By the way, it is unnecessary to go back to Cave Times. 

It was the same issue with typewriters.

Which was considerably more recently.

You proofread a page, you notice a “typo”, or see something to take out, or think of something to put in, or move someplace else, and that offending page is inexorably destined for the trash bin.  And then the revised page totally retyped.

STONE WRITER:  “At least it’s not the entire thing!"

We are busier people!  For us, a page is a lifetime!  It was terrible.  There was no “Cut and Paste.”  No “Deleting” backspacing.  No “Copy” and “Insert.”

STONE WRITER:  “Poor baby.”

(To “Stone Writer”)  Go chisel your own blog!

Once a young writer on a show I was consulting on asked me what it was like before computers.  To which I sexistly replied,

“We had women.”

Which was true.  During rewrite nights, teams of rotating “secretaries” typed up the revised pages, and if we decided on subsequent changes, they’d retype them again.  

And again.

And again,

And, if necessary,


With computers, we now revise everything ourselves.  In a system where it is exponentially easier to rewrite.

Today’s Headline:  “Technology Intrinsically Affects Writing.”

Hammering a tablet with a chisel decrees a significantly different creative result than writing with a feather.  Or than writing with a pen.  Or than typing on a typewriter.  Or than what I am tapping away on right now.

Imagine Thomas Jefferson, “feathering” the Declaration of Independence.  He hands the completed version to John Adams who reads it and says, “Uh-oh.  It’s ‘unalienable rights’, not ‘inalienable rights.’”  Jefferson digs in his heels; the contentious descriptive remains in perpetuity. 

In later years, Jefferson and Adams became mortal enemies.  Ideological differences?  Perhaps.  But there are outlier scholars who believe that their mutual animosity began when Adams demanded the “re-feathering” of the entire Declaration of Independence, replacing “inalienable” with the actually-a-word “unalienable” and Thomas Jefferson scatologically replied,

“Go commit an inspeakable sexual act upon yourself!”

“That’s unspeakable!”

“I was kidding, you insufferable buffoon!  And “insufferable” is right!

So far, this has been about editing.  But technological advancements can affect the other direction, as well.

Making me wonder why I spent the preponderance of this post writing about one thing when what actually inspired this idea was the opposite.

Sometimes I even befuddle myself.

So here it is.  The most recent alteration to the way we write:


When I figure out how to get there, I watch Netflix, which on a good week is maybe four times out of seven.  And then I don’t always watch what I intended; I simply watch where I land.  Last night, I wanted to watch Letterman interviewing Obama and wound up watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  And it wasn’t Jerry, driving around Obama, it was Jerry and some Austrian actor I never heard of.  Who, although humorous, technically meant there was only one comedian in the car getting coffee.

I have, in the past, streamed Netflix’s The Crown, the experience fostering this scriptorial conclusion:

Streaming makes you write longer.

The Crown is both opulent and, if it’s not redundant and it probably is, sumptuous.  But “Come… o-o-o-on!  The Crown?

It’s like watching a tapestry.

The Crown’s screenwriter, Peter Morgan, also wrote The Queen, which I really enjoyed.  I looked The Queen up:

Running Time:  One hour and forty-three minutes.

Like a well-tailored suit The Queen was assiduously constructed.  Tightly plotted.  Nothing significant left out.  Nothing extraneous put in.  An admirable movie that was, appreciatively, “movie length.”

I can’t imagine Peter Morgan going,

“If I only had eight-and-a-half more hours…”

With The Crown, he does.  So you (figuratively) get Queen Elizabeth the Second, trying on a hat.”

“I am not certain about the veil.”

Streaming let’s them go on about veils.

It’s like, “Peter Morgan, write as lengthily as you want.” 

And Peter Morgan does just that.

Streaming imposes no time limits, so no time limits are adhered to.

And there’s the Duke of Edinburgh, rearranging his sock drawer.

They might believe everything in there is necessary, but The Crown – The Movie?

Eight-and-a-half hours of it would go out.

So that’s that.  Now, a technologically facilitated revision.

STONE WRITER:  “Sorry, I can’t watch this.”

I understand.

1 comment:

JED said...

The computer has affected the computer itself. I remember needing to enter a program line by line on a set of punch cards - one line per card. You really had to think about each line you entered. Then, you carried the stack of cards to the computer center where they would run your program when they got around to it. Later, you'd find that you'd missed a letter and had to retype a card. Or worse - your logic was wrong and the entire set of cards had to be created again with another trip through the snow and past the barking dog to the computer center. You really thought about everything you did before you started punching cards. The programs were much simpler and fewer people were creating programs but boy they were well thought out.

But at least with computers, things are better now. Programs are more extensive and complex but in this case, it means that more intricate problems can be solved and more types of problems can be attacked. But then you do get Microsoft Word with 20 billion options and that blasted new Ribbon interface that takes up room and all you want to do is write a letter to a friend and it acts like you want to publish a book with footnotes and an index! So, maybe some things improved and some things didn't.