Monday, September 2, 2013

Could a Computer Have Helped Shakespeare?

I will go out on a limb here and state that most everyone today, with the possible exception of JK Rowling when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, uses some form of computer, word processor, or technology-driven writing machine to compose their work. I am not including typewriters in this group because they cannot do the things that a computer can do. If you make a mistake on a typewriter, you get to re-type the entire page; especially if you are typing a term paper—at least that is the way it was when I was in college. No Whiteout allowed. In this example, one eventually becomes a better typist.  

Last week, I was having a particularly tough time laying down a scene for my next book. I found I was cutting and pasting, copying and moving and deleting, words, phrases, sentences, and yes, entire paragraphs, all in an effort to maintain its rhythm and make it sing. And as I adjusted the flow of the language, I realized that without the tools of the day, writing would be far more difficult for me, if not altogether impossible. At the least, it would be more than simply frustrating. I began to reflect on the Greats. The ones who came before, those who set the standards for the literature I totally ignored while in high school; much to my chagrin.   

I began to wonder how the great writers in literature managed without them: Poe, Orwell, Milton, Hemingway, Melville … the list goes on and on. Did they spend hours and hours re-writing as I do? By hand? Or were they like Mozart? A savant? A man who already had the symphony written in his head, and merely needed to transfer it to paper? 

Was Dickens or Tolkien like that? Or did they make mistakes? Would a computer have helped Shakespeare? Or would it hinder him—or any of them? An ordinary writer, I stumble through scenes, writing and rewriting until I hit the right “notes.” Even as I write this short piece, I am moving entire sentences, leaning on Spellcheck, and cursing those green squiggly lines that appear under entire passages. 

It boggles my mind to imaging Twain rewriting a scene from Huckleberry Finn over and over, and he had a pen that didn’t need an inkwell. To him, I expect the Conklin Crescent self-filling fountain pen was a leap forward in writing technology. But still…. 

No, I do not believe a computer would have helped Shakespeare, or any of them, become greater than they already are. They did not have the luxury to click a misspelled word and have it magically correct itself, or suggest the proper punctuation, or remind them to avoid passive voice. They had to possess the skills and the knowledge in order to apply it to the work. I believe that these “advancements,” as we call them, help us, but may have diminished them, ostensibly preventing their greatness from bursting through.  

These crutches allow, and perhaps endorse an individual's lack of understanding of the craft; curtail knowledge, so to speak, because the answers to questions unasked are right there at your fingertips. I find I need not remember phone numbers any longer because I possess a cell phone. In these instruments of artificially administered knowledge is created a mechanism that enables an average writer such as me, to get to the meat of the writing without knowing all the rules. For this I am eternally grateful, for without a computer to guide my way, I may have never completed a novel.  

But for the Great ones? … Well, I heard somewhere that Ms. Rowling wrote her first manuscript in a coffee shoppe by hand.    

I’ve always maintained that penning a novel is not about the writing, so much as it is about the story, but that assumes an acceptable level of proficiency. One can’t expect the computer to do the writing for them. The writer still needs to have some command of the basics. They still need to know which words to put on the “paper,” and in what order. There’s nothing easy about it. The computer allows the writer to focus on the story, and not so much the rules and regulations surrounding it. 

Please understand that in this post I infer no peers, and I draw these conclusions based solely on self-perceived inadequacies regarding my current knowledge of Grammar and English.
However, I still believe that I tell a hell of a good story, no matter how I get it wrote.   

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