Saturday, August 28, 2010

Charles Dickens and His Wax Tablet

Scott D. Parker

Picture this: Charles Dickens has writer’s block. He can’t quite work out what new tragedy he can inflict upon Esther Summerson. He’s stuck. So he puts down his pen and moves his ink bottle off his desk. He stands up and, from a top shelf, pulls down a wax-covered writing tablet, the kind the Romans used. Sharpening the stylus, old Boz sits down and starts writing the next chapter of Bleak House on wax.

Think that’s how it happened? Yeah, I don’t think so, either. But I sometimes wonder, judging by the habits of modern writers and extrapolating backwards, if that’s how it might’ve gone.

What am I saying? Only this: in all the discourse about writing in this modern age, many folks choose to use older technology to get their writing complete. David McCullough famously uses a 1940s-era manual typewriter for all the books he’s written. Jonathan Franzen, in the cover story of Time last week, notes that he writes on an old laptop whose ethernet port has been superglued shut, thus never allowing that computer to access the internet. Even me, when I find myself writing during vacations, I take pen and paper rather than laptop.


McCullough has said that he likes the slowness of non-digital technology. It allows him to think through his prose and the structure of his books. I agree with him. When I break out the pen and ink, often my ideas gush through my brain and my hand can’t keep up. On those non-laptop vacations (that’s a rule I put in place, not imposed by any family member), I long for the keyboard and speed of my typing. Writing longhand is, often, too slow for me. Ironically, when I find myself stuck in a particular passage, instead of forging ahead on the laptop, I start writing longhand. The log jam breaks and I keep on moving, back on the laptop. Makes me want to study the nature of writer’s brains and see if there’s some thousand-year evolution of neurons and the imagination that has been forged and that we, in the digital age, are attempting to melt and reforge into something new.

As funny as it is to imagine Dickens writing on wax or papyrus or hieroglyphics, I can’t help but ask the obvious question: given a chance do you think Dickens (or any writer pre-twentieth century writer) would have used a laptop and a word processor?

I have my answer, but I’ll let y’all start…


Jay Stringer said...

I think Dickens would have been all over a word processor like a dog in heat.

Different folks have different habits for getting the work done. Some times our brain just needs to be followed on its path to writing in a notebooks or scratching it onto the bodies of our victims with a spoon.

But word processing basically makes the process quicker and easier, gives us more options and allows more revisions.

Someone who was as up on society and trends as Dickens would have been all about laptops. He's probably have had both a macbook and a windows machine. Hell, by now he'd be onto his third ipad.

And someone like Shakespeare, with the amount of rewriting that he used to do? he'dve had a blog all about his writing process.

(which would also stop all the silly conspiracy theories about his authorship.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I certainly am more productive when I work on a computer with no access to the Internet. No doubt.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

No internet - yeah - that would help me, but it would be less fun. No computer - YIKES! I would never have finished writing my first book. I'm not a fan of my handwriting - it would have annoyed me the entire time I was writing.