Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Finding analog moments in a digital world

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Authors have a reputation, sometimes richly deserved, of being stodgy and resistant to change, but nearly every writer I know is grateful for modern technology. Writing a novel is simply less of a pain, on a physical level, than ever before. Yet slowness, time, and silence are still crucial components of the creative process, and with the acceleration of all forms of communication, it’s sometimes necessary to deliberately slow things down. I’ve spoken before of my suspicion that it takes about a year of sitting in a chair to produce any novel, no matter how fast your computer lets you type, so you tend to make up the difference with many small revisions, which are less important in themselves than in the time they grant you to mull over the larger work. Similarly, it’s important for most artists to insert pockets of slowness into their daily routine. Today, I want to focus on how this applies to three crucial areas: how we move, how we write, and how we read.

One of the best ways to slow things down is to walk, rather than drive, whenever possible. In Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, Walter Murch notes that during the editing of Cold Mountain, he was grateful for the chance to walk to work every day, which gave him an extra half hour to think. For my own part, after managing to walk or take public transit everywhere for years, my recent move to the suburbs means that I’m now driving on a regular basis, and I can already feel the loss. Driving, especially in the city, just isn’t a good time for contemplation. Taking the train is better, and walking is best of all. I’ve stated elsewhere that I’ve rarely encountered a plot problem that couldn’t be solved by a walk to the grocery store—which isn’t the case when I drive there. And I can’t imagine a writer whose work habits wouldn’t be improved by a short daily walk. (But please leave the headphones at home.)

It’s also useful to honor the simple act of taking pen to paper. Once again, Murch points the way: as an editor, he’s made use of all kinds of technological innovations, but he still begins each project by spending two days preparing handwritten scene cards, cutting the card stock into “odd little shapes” and coding elements of the movie with different colors. It’s a cataloging tool, but there’s also something meditative about doing this work by hand. Similarly, while I sometimes use a text file to organize my initial thoughts about a project, ultimately, I almost always turn to physical cards. And while I don’t think I’ll ever handwrite an entire novel, I find ways of incorporating pen and paper into the process whenever possible—in notebooks, in mind maps, and in the hundreds of small scraps I use to jot down ideas. I could use software for all of this, and some writers do, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

Finally, perhaps the most useful habit of all is to persist in reading real books. It comes down to the issue, which I mentioned yesterday, of technology giving you what you want, but not necessarily what you need. A website or electronic book can take you directly to the right page or allow you to search the text instantly, but it’s often in the act of flipping through a physical book, or wandering through a library, that you find your next big idea. (There’s also something about running a photocopier, I find, that allows interesting thoughts to creep in.) A few weeks ago, on eBay, I bought a trove of back issues of Discover magazine, which I often use for story ideas, despite the fact that all of the articles are available online. Why? Because while the web is great for research, it isn’t the best place for dreaming. And as the pace of digital innovation grows ever more rapid, it’s important to slow things down when possible—because dreaming, in the end, is an analog activity.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2011 at 10:29 am

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