Wednesday, July 03, 2013

So I Never Wrote a Letter, I Never Took My True Heart, I Never Wrote It Down

Andrew Coyne:

How we write, in other words, affects what we write. You compose in a different way using pen and ink than you do on a computer. You think in a different way. It may even be that you are, to that extent, a different person, much as we take on a different personality when we speak a foreign language.

We are becoming different people now: Our brains are almost certainly being restructured by interacting with computers all day long. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it would be a shame if that were all we knew — if one day we found ourselves cut off from our ancestors, unable to fully comprehend the thoughts they composed, having forgotten how they used to compose them.

And no less an authority than Socrates/Plato thought that it was a devolution for an oral culture to become text-based, because it would make people forgetful and only superficially learned. Writing eats your brain! No, typing eats your brain! Paper eats your brain! No, pixelated screens eat your brain! Hey, you know, perhaps the popularity of the zombie motif in mythology and pop culture speaks to this apparently-ancient fear that something malevolent is trying to eat our brains. Anyway, before I digress any further, I'm going to go ahead and suggest that the narcissism of small differences plays a huge role in this perennial argument. I mean, come on, man; these are trivial differences in style we're talking about here, not yawning chasms of comprehension. I read Chaucer and Beowulf in high school with the help of footnotes, and my brain has been able to segue into the idiom of text-messaging and back again without stalling and belching black smoke.

And if we're going to trade anecdotes, well, I find longhand writing to be laborious and tiresome, causing my interest to fade long before I approach saying everything I could. On a computer, the fact that the actual text can be set down (legibly!) in a matter of seconds reserves that much more time for contemplation and mental composition. Despite the supposed irresistible logic of the machine working its hoodoo on me, my writing process consists of multiple re-readings of whatever excerpt I'm using as a springboard, followed by a lot of intent staring at the screen as I organize my thoughts, ending with a brief flurry of typing. Whatever my limitations as a writer, I likely would have never even tried exploring it as a hobby were it not for the ease facilitated by a keyboard.

Sometimes drudgery is just drudgery. Not everyone who chops wood and carries water becomes spiritually profound as a result. Forming letters individually with your fingers doesn't make your thoughts deeper or your writing better. Clearing mental space and making time for reflection — assuming you truly want to do so — is much more important. Meaning cannot be reduced to mechanism.