in 1984, we bought our first computer. We took out a loan. It cost $3000. It had 256K of memory and 2 5.25″ floppy disks.
I know it’s ancient history. I know it’s easy to laugh at how far technology has come.
This isn’t that kind of a story.
We bought the computer while I was in a graduate research course. I was developing my own project and writing a scholarly paper.
Having the computer thrilled me. Writing was so much easier.
I wrote a draft. I handed it in. A day or so later, my research adviser saw me in the hallway. He invited me to his office. He had me sit down. He looked at me and said, “Do you want it nicely or bluntly?”
“Bluntly,” I smiled.
“This is an awful piece of writing.”
He was right. It was awful. It was not a paper. It was a collection of sentence and paragraphs cut and pasted together. The paper had no flow, it made no argument. It was merely words.
What happened? We got a computer. Because a word processor allowed me to write and easily reorder, I reordered. I pasted bits of prose together. However, I did not rewrite, rethink, re-sense. My unwillingness to do the hard work of revision was exposed.
I spent the rest of that semester figuring out how to write with the technology. I’ve spent the decades since then doing the same thing again and again. Every new platform, every new technology, every new communication channel challenges storytellers, debaters, writers, thinkers. We can easily succumb to the capacities of the tools and forget that we must learn to use them rather than be used by them.
- I have a Blackberry. I can write blog posts from my phone. But the potential need not create oughtness.
- I can record and post 12 second videos. But if I have nothing to say in 12 seconds, I need not record them.
- I think well in 300-1000 word essays that invite thought, both mine and others. That is worth developing as far as I can.
From time to time I find myself writing as I did for that week in grad school. I think that the coolness of the technology will be its own excuse for poor craft. Unfortunately, I have few people willing to say, “Nicely or bluntly?”
It’s a shame, really.
I’m a better writer for it.