Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A choice of tools

with 5 comments


The poet Ted Hughes once told a wonderful story to The Paris Review about judging the W.H. Smith children’s writing competition. In the early years of the contest, the stories were fairly short—just a page or two—but in the eighties, they started to balloon, until the judges were seeing stories of seventy pages or more, usually in the genre that Hughes charmingly calls “space fiction.” The culprit? Word processors:

What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin.

The result, according to Hughes, were stories that were “always very inventive and always extraordinary fluent—[with] a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring.”

I believe it, mostly because I could easily have been one of these kids. When I was thirteen, I wrote a 70,000-word novel using WordStar and an ancient dot matrix printer that probably would have given Hughes an aneurysm, and there’s no question that the available technology is what allowed me to write it. Most of my earlier stories—and by “earlier,” I mean written when I was nine or ten—were almost graphomaniacally compressed, with tiny lines squeezed together on a little square of paper, mostly because I liked the way it looked. Later, when I got my hands on a series of electric typewriters, I began to compose longer pieces, but even then, they were rarely longer than a few pages, and I almost never finished what I started. It was only the combination of a word processor and a printer that freed me to plunge into longer projects, and by the time I was in high school, I was regularly writing stories that were hundreds of pages long. (And although I haven’t gone back to read many of them since, I’m pretty sure that they were very inventive, extraordinarily fluent, and without exception strangely boring.)

Joe Eszterhas

Tools matter. They liberate us, but they can also trap us and lead us into dangerous habits, and the choices we make early on can shape our work in ways that we can’t expect. Joe Eszterhas, who can be a bit of a tool himself, but surprisingly compelling on the subject of craft, wrote all of his screenplays on a manual typewriter—which makes a cameo appearance as a crucial piece of evidence in his script for Jagged Edge—and he claims to be terrified of learning how to use a computer. In The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, he writes that he has a closet at home filled with the same model of typewriter, still in their original boxes, but since he can wear out a machine in a matter of months with his aggressive two-fingered typing, he’s always worried about running out. And yes, it would be a loss: it’s easy to imagine that the mood of his scripts—which are short, punchy, with minimal filler—stems at least in part from the medium on which they were composed. I’ve dabbled a little in screenwriting, mostly as a source of insights into story structure, but I’ve resisted switching over to Final Draft, preferring to format the page manually in Word. It’s less efficient, but it forces me to think about every choice I make, and I’d like to think that the finished product is a little more textured as a result.

And this isn’t just true for writers. Recently, I’ve begun to learn Lisp, the strangest and most powerful of all programming languages, and although there are a handful of convenient development environments available, like LispWorks, I spent the better part of a day setting up Slime, the Lisp development mode for Emacs. For those who haven’t experienced it directly, Emacs is a venerable text editor primarily used by coders, and for anyone used to working with polished graphical interfaces, it’s enough to make you break out in a cold sweat: it’s text only, controlled solely through keyboard commands, with an initially bewildering labyrinth of key combinations you need to memorize just to navigate through a document. Yet it’s also enormously powerful, flexible, and customizable, and it affects the way coders think. They can live in a wall of text for years, and the commands become wired into their fingers to an almost musical degree: it’s no accident that the key combinations in Emacs are called chords. It subtly influences the way they feel about formatting and syntax, which filters up imperceptibly into decisions involving the design of larger structures, up to the level of the program itself. And it all starts, as with most other things in art and life, with the choice of tools.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on where i keep my stuff.

    Amy Keeley

    September 18, 2013 at 5:38 pm

  2. Maybe I should talk about DisplayWrite 3, the IBM program from 1985 that did the same for me; I too knocked out a … well, a prose fiction of considerable length, and with a beginning, a middle and an end. I won’t call it a novel. An odd, perhaps, but not a novel. It was a comic fantasy parody — and I had never heard of Terry Pratchett at the time… Hasn’t turned out to be the beginning of a writing career, but so be it. Before that I wrote by hand or using my Dad’s portable typewriter; as a legacy of those days I still hit the keys very, very hard. Work gave me a MacBook and I broke the Enter key just finishing a paragraph.

    More seriously, I think the interfaces on those old programs had a lot going for them. Fewer distractions, formatting commands that were designed to be called on by typists who didn’t want to stray from the home keys…I’ve always had a soft spot for WordPerfect for DOS. I came to love the almost-empty blue screen, the white on blue that I still think easier on the eyes than modern WYSIWYG, and the fact that it could do pretty much everything in such a small footprint. I may be more than a little reactionary, but everything newer seems bloated and distancing.

    Other folks must think the same — hence DarkRoom, WriteRoom, and WordGrinder.

    Emacs — ahhh (makes sign of the cross)! I am on the other side of that bitterest of geek divides (but, then, we are all geeks now) — I use vi and its clones for my coding (Fortran, mostly (I’m a scientist, not a programmer), some bash and a lot of LaTeX). I kind of fall into the ‘Emacs is a great operating system, all it needs is a usable editor’ category. But I also fall into the ‘I don’t want to know a new way, I’ve already found a tool that works for me,’ category, and that has cost me in the long run more than once.


    September 19, 2013 at 6:18 am

  3. Oh, and for distraction-free portable writing… could you ever imagine using one of these…


    September 19, 2013 at 6:39 am

  4. I remember entering the W.H. Smith’s competition, in 1984 or 1985. Sorry Ted…


    September 19, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  5. @Darren: Luckily, since I’m coding in Lisp, the decision was pretty much made for me—which allows me to avoid the editor wars entirely. (Oh, and I would have killed for a Neo 2 when I was twelve.)

    @whatareyoureadingfor: Was it space fiction?


    September 19, 2013 at 5:46 pm

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