Friday, October 6, 2017

Elizabeth Hardwick on the Computer

The latest issue of The New York Review has a “preview” of the introduction that Darryl Pinckney wrote for The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, which will be published by New York Review Book this coming October 17. One sentence about Hardwick leapt out at me:
She blamed the computer for finishing a lot of books that ought not to have been.
This reminded me of a more humorous essay that Calvin Trillin wrote for The Nation when the phrase “word processor” was just entering our working vocabulary. Trilling wrote about his first experience with this software, marveling at how many more words he was processing compared with his past work with paper and pencil or at a typewriter. Those of us who could appreciate Trillin’s characteristic tone agreed that this would be one of those cases in which a tool for office efficiency could have unexpected consequences (not necessarily desirable) in other settings.

To be fair, I do all of my writing from a keyboard sitting in front of a computer screen. Nevertheless, I both understand and sympathize with the joint stance taken by Trillin and Hardwick. Indeed, I once had to review a book in which a large section of content had been copied and pasted, the result being that this extended passage appeared in exactly the same way in two different chapters. For that matter, even when word processing software was just moving out of research laboratories into the commercial sector, I was already suffering from reading doctoral theses that could be boiled down to only a few pages but, thanks to “word processing,” had been inflated to 100-page tomes.

Hardwick could be a notorious grumbler; and one of her favorite grumbles was, “Nobody knows how to write any more.” She died in 2007, by which time she probably realized the extremes to which that grumble could now be taken. Still, Pinckney’s recollection was a gentle nudge for me to consider my own habits.

The name “The Rehearsal Studio” was originally coined with more than the performing arts in mind. I saw it as an opportunity to “rehearse” the many ideas what were knocking around in my consciousness in anticipation that those ideas might eventually find their way into a book. Since then I have prepared any number of different chapter outlines for what that book might be, never making very much progress in fleshing any of the outlines into readable prose. Given the extent to which the very reputation of the book and the service it can provide has degraded, even over the lifetime of this site, I no longer feel bad about my procrastination.

These days I focus on writing about in-the-moment experiences with the intention of rendering in words my own in-the-moment impressions. Once those impressions have been established in my mind, I know how much background I need to provide to translate them from private feelings to public assertions. I have discovered that, over the years of doing this sort of thing, the practice has become relatively easy to me, even to the point that I can often frame an entire presentation during the half-hour swim I take shortly after waking every morning.

Mind you, I shall be the first to admit that I wish an editor were “in the loop.” I am sure that Hardwick would have been merciless in taking apart anything I have written. I would like to think, however, that she would then direct me on a path towards building things up again. On the other hand my own grumble still prevails: In an age in which content is limited by a cell phone screen, almost no one has the patience for anything that strives to be an essay. (Hell, I’m not sure that the current generation even has the patience to follow a shaggy dog story!)

Probably I should just fess up and acknowledge the recreational value of what I do. It may amount to little more than making mud pies at the beach, but probably less than I would have liked. Still, Alfred North Whitehead once told Suzanne Langer that the joy of making mud pies comes from sharing them, in which case putting them out to share seems like the best thing I can do!

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