Wednesday, October 19

Portrait of the Writer as a Computer User, Verlyn Klinkenborg, NY Times

Readers often ask me if I write on a computer. The question comes up because I sometimes write about nature, and because readers always wonder how writers actually work. The answer is that, at some point in my writing career, I have used just about every popular technology developed for writers since the invention of the lead pencil.

I've written with cedar pencils and mechanical pencils, with ballpoint and felt-tip and fountain pens. I've written on manual and electric typewriters. I have never used a quill. And unlike my Times colleague, David Pogue, I don't write with voice-recognition software, because my prose doesn't work that way. But if the software designers ever develop thought-recognition software, I will certainly give it a try.

When I write, I compose sentences in my head. Most writers could say the same. Untold numbers of sentences - hundreds of thousands of them - have expired in my thoughts without ever taking on ink. They have left no trace except for a certain economy in the way I work, the result of years of ruthless sentence slaughter.

I have never believed in making a fetish of the tools I write with. A perfect pen, a clothbound journal, a supportive chair, a clean, well-lighted desk, the right time of day, the ideal stimulant or inebriant, a favorite mug - these are beloved of aspiring writers and eagerly touted by the aspiring-writer industry. Sooner or later they all turn into reasons you can't write, when you run out of green tea or lavender ink. I need to be able to write whenever and wherever I can. That's why I write in my head . It's always with me.

But I do write on a computer, and that's been true since 1984, when I was living in the Bronx and writing on my new Zenith PC. I can see now how primitive that machine and its software really were. And yet in some ways, the computer I'm writing these words on now - a powerful and nearly silent Apple iMac - seems far less exotic to me than that Zenith did. How I got from one to the other - and what I noticed along the way - is the story you are about to read.

1984, The Bronx, and a Zenith PC

In 21 years, I've owned a dozen personal computers, not counting the three machines The Times has provided since I joined the editorial board. There's really no excuse for so much hardware except an interest in computers and an appetite - nearly a sickness, as every computer-lover knows - for keeping up to date. For conveying the words I write into print, the newest computers work best because they seamlessly intersect with the machines that make e-mail and the Internet and the electronic editing of books and magazines and newspapers possible. But when it comes to the basic task of taking down sentences, my very first computer probably did the job almost as well as my new G5 iMac.

My first computer was a Zenith PC-compatible with two genuinely floppy 5 1/4 inch floppy discs. I bought it in December 1984, a year after I finished typing my doctoral dissertation - a year too late, in other words. I remember almost nothing about the technical data of that PC, which seems appropriate for a computer that had virtually no memory itself. But I see, from the invoice, that it came with MS-DOS 2.11, Basic 2.0, Microsoft Word 1.1, and 320 kilobytes of RAM. With a faculty discount from Fordham University, where I was teaching at the time, that PC cost $1,656.67, or $3066.45 adjusted for inflation.

It was easy to rationalize buying a good typewriter. I typed my dissertation on a topaz IBM Correcting Selectric III, a wonderful machine even though it remembered only the last key I pressed. (It cost $920.13 with tax, or $1757.63 in today's dollars.) In fact, I wish I still had it, since I prefer to write letters, actual snail-mail letters, on a typewriter.

Rationalizing the PC took a little more self-deception. For a writer, owning a personal computer in 1984 was really only about owning a computer. The glow of green letters on a black background, the static of the cathode ray tube, the sense of glimpsing the future when I sat down to work - these things had nothing to do with writing. They had to do with a sense, deeply embedded in me in grade school, that science might someday make a better world for all of us. But there was something disappointing about that PC. The mechanics of manipulating text on it weren't very different from writing on a typewriter. It was just phosphorescent typing. If I made a mistake, I could correct it without having to throw away a sheet of paper. But I could do the same on my typewriter.

All in all, the Selectric was the better machine. It didn't run DOS. It didn't require a printer, or type in dot-matrix. There was something gratifyingly physical about the sound of the spherical typing element hitting the paper and the platen behind it. I could feel in my bones the solidity of every word. There was even something satisfying about ripping a sheet out of the carriage in disgust, crumpling it up, and tossing it into the wastebasket. I could turn the Selectric on or off in an instant, without booting up or shutting down. And when it was off, it seemed to recede into the room - just a familiar piece of office furniture.

Unlike the typewriter, the PC always wanted to be on. After I booted it up, it even pretended to have a life of its own, though it wasn't much of a life. The monitor liked to stare me in the face, cursor blinking, the command prompt quietly needling me as if there were some dim intelligence on the other side of the screen. "A" it kept saying, "A." That was all. I wanted to work in English. It wanted to work in Basic or Fortran or Pascal, languages I had never heard of before. I wanted to write prose of many moods. It preferred the imperative - short, choppy commands in a code intelligible only to itself. I wanted to think. It wanted to run Flight Simulator. And there was always the worry, no matter how often I backed up my work, that the machine would accidentally delete it - a treason no typewriter is capable of.

The Anti-Romantic Computer

Verlyn Klinkenborg
There is a tired myth that writers fear the blank sheet of paper. The fact is that a sheet of paper conveys no expectation. It just lies there keeping its counsel, infinitely patient. But not a computer. The cursor winks dictatorially, pointing to the spot on the screen where you must begin. "Here," it says, "Go ahead and write. Go ahead. Write. Here. Now." That subtle electronic tyranny is often, I think, what gives real point to the question, "Do you write on a computer?"

Most of the ordinary notions about writing are essentially romantic. Readers may not be thinking specifically of Keats in the blushing stubble or Coleridge by the midnight fire, but they do tend to take it for granted that the best parts of a writer's work, especially a writer whose subject is nature, arise spontaneously, organically.

The premise of that romantic faith, as commonly misunderstood, is that writers don't really work on command. Inspiration is supposed to rise up within them like an intermittent spring. Running a newspaper along those lines would be almost impossible, of course - no end of trouble for the Public Editor. But so would writing a novel or a work of literary nonfiction or, for that matter, a lyric poem.

Writing while seated at the computer - the cursor winking expectantly as the seconds tick past - is the very antithesis of the romantic myth. It implies that you expect to be able to find what's best in you, as a writer, by looking for it instead of waiting for it to bubble up among the nightingales.

And that is exactly what I do expect, whether I'm writing about Interior Department management policy or the paw-print of a wolf in Yellowstone. Writing means allowing yourself to think while paying attention to what you think as you think it. A computer is no impediment to that, unless you have broadband.

Beginning writers (and an awful lot of readers) love to believe that writing flows naturally. The ghost of spontaneity is upon them. They assume that a computer is so inorganic, so soulless, that it somehow dams the flood of words. But in good writing there's no such thing as a natural flow of words, except as an effect in the reader's mind. The real labor - and the real art - is considering each word one by one and laying it in its proper place. (George Orwell makes a version of this point in his seminal essay, "Politics and the English Language.")

The problem, of course, is the word "natural" - a word that "motherboard," "Microsoft" and even "Macintosh" seem inherently to contradict. That word underlies most of the false assumptions about how writers work. There's nothing natural about writing, whether you're dipping ink out of a bottle with the nib of a pen or working in VoodooPad on a PowerBook. Talking is natural. Writing is not. You learn to do the one without knowing it. The other takes years of practice. For some reason, this confuses people.

All writing is revision. (Just look at William Wordsworth's manuscripts.) And revision is where computers come in handy. They make it easy to revisit any sentence, any paragraph, and to write from the middle instead of the end. And they make seeing the results of your revisions effortless. They bring the task of revising your words as close to the dexterity of thought as it is ever likely to get. And, in a certain sense, because computers make managing text so effortless - no retyping yet another draft when you thought you were finally finished - they remove any plausible excuse for not getting every single word, every single phrase, just the way you want it. (Not that there ever was a plausible excuse.)

Yet even now, after 20 years of writing on computers, I still print a hard copy of my day's work, and I still read it aloud to myself and edit it with a pen. My ear is still vastly smarter than my eye, just as it was when I used to type up in the evening what I had written in pencil during the day and edit it one more time before I went to bed. I suppose I could ask one of the personalities in the VoiceOver Utility on my iMac - Fred or Kathy or Zarvox - to read my work aloud to me. But I'm a much better reader than they are. I know what the words actually mean.

Another Zenith, Circa 1988, and the Claustrophobia of DOS

Of all the computers I've owned, the only one I've kept around for sentimental reasons- does anything have less sentimental value than an old computer? - is a Zenith laptop, or, as the label on the bottom says, "Lap Top Computer Model ZFL-181-92." I bought it in 1988. It is nearly as big as four iBooks stacked in pairs side by side. It has aged the way beige plastic ages, turning as yellow as a smoker's teeth.

My wife found the Zenith in the attic the other day. I dug out a copy of MS-DOS 3.2 and slipped it into the A drive. I turned on the switch, and abruptly the A prompt appeared on that small blue screen. I asked for the B prompt, inserted a data disk in the B drive, and asked to see the disk's contents by typing "dir/w." I was surprised to find myself speaking DOS. The Zenith was not. The screen scrolled, and there I was - just where I'd left off working 16 or 17 years ago.

What struck me - besides the residue of DOS commands cluttering my brain - was the claustrophobic quality of the actual workspace, which, for all the bulk of the laptop, was only about half the size of a sheet of typing paper. The screen was small, yes, but MS-DOS also lacked the graphical user interface pioneered by Apple and made popular, as Windows 3.0 by Microsoft in 1990. The operating systems we all use now offer the illusion of looking into the screen as if it were a terrarium filled with three-dimensional objects. That was not possible in DOS 3.2, not in 1988, and not on the Zenith. What I was looking at was no deeper or more illusory than the display on a calculator.

By 1993 the Zenith was just about worthless, which was a function of time not wear. Suddenly, there was no longer any point to a laptop running DOS on 3 1/2 inch disks. I bought an IBM Thinkpad, a Windows laptop that seemed like a miracle of miniaturization and power and graphical beauty. I never gave the Zenith another thought. It took ten years before I began to regard it fondly, as a relic of a simpler time. I looked up "Zenith laptop" on eBay the other day, and the opening bid for the machine I found - a ZFL-181-93 - was $9.99, or $6.16 in 1988 dollars No one was bidding on it.

The Software of Getting What You See

Hardware is less than half the story, of course. It wasn't just the screen on the Zenith laptop that made me feel claustrophobic the other day - it was MS-DOS, too. I have half a dozen different versions of DOS stuck away in a closet, and piles of disks for other, long-forgotten software, all of it utterly familiar to me once upon a time.

The old elaborate protocols for buying new software have largely vanished. Installation disks have been replaced by instant downloads and e-mailed registration codes. Detailed manuals have been replaced by nothing. A major software release used to feel like a mental land-rush. There was a flurry of dust and confusion at the beginning and a race to the most promising homesteads. Everything looked fresh and fertile for a while. And then eventually you realized that this, too, had become a well-settled country and it was time to move on. All that old software in my closet describes an antique land, no longer habitable now that I've seen the present.

Nearly every computer user, writer or not, is caught up in a basic tension: learning new software as rapidly as possible while carrying old habits forward. I've been using Microsoft Word my whole computing life. I began with version 1.1 in 1984, when the basic program was about 72,000 bytes in size. (The core of the version I now use is about 13 megabytes.) I've been working in Word for nearly its entire history. I've switched platforms - from Microsoft Windows to Apple OS X - but I still use Word. The boundaries of the program have steadily pushed outward, embracing new languages (like HTML and technologies like e-mail and the Internet that were only in their infancy when I began using it. But within Word I still live in the same pleasant township I used to live in, never mind how large or sophisticated the district around me has grown. Every now and then I cultivate a new patch of ground. But with every upgrade of Word, I use proportionately less and less of the program's full potential. And so I have stopped upgrading.

Since 1984, I've lived in 7 different apartments or houses in New York city, the Berkshires, and now upstate New York. I've taught at 6 different colleges and universities and worked at The Times for 8 years. I've owned a dozen different computers and written four books. But I've lived in only one writing program. I was a Word man from the get go. Word came bundled with my original Zenith PC, and that was enough. I was lucky. It could have been XyWrite.

Information or, Alas, the Efficiency of Inefficiency

Verlyn Klinkenborg
I vividly remember an article that James Fallows wrote about Lotus Agenda, a powerful "PIM" or personal information manager, in the Atlantic Monthly in 1992. It was a glimpse inside a remarkable piece of software, but it was also a tantalizing peek inside the working habits of another writer. I was struck by the flexibility and capaciousness of Agenda, as Fallows described it, but I was even more impressed by the time he had put into learning the program, which helped him organize the masses of information he was gathering as a reporter. I almost bought a copy of Agenda. What stopped me was the price - $399 - and the recollection that I am not James Fallows.

For me, writing is an inherently inefficient business. It takes a lot of staring out the window, and walking downstairs to see if the ducks and geese are getting in the road. It is often accompanied by a nap, a far more powerful organizational tool than most people realize. I have sound scholarly habits and good reporting skills. But I have yet to be conquered by the recent passion - of which Agenda is an early instance - for Getting Things Done, based on the book of that name by David Allen. (Fallows has also written in the Atlantic about Allen and his GTD gospel of efficiency. My model is closer to Robert Benchley's "How to Get Things Done." That essay, published 75 years ago, begins, "A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated."

There are plenty of software tools to help writers get organized. But to me they're useful in inverse proportion to the time it takes to learn them. I'm constantly trying them out in hopes of finding one that is both life-changing and simple. I've worked in DevonThink and Ulysses (forgive me if I'm entering Mac-only territory) and liked them well enough to buy them. (I especially like one of DevonThink's most trivial features - its ability to make an instant concordance of anything I'm writing.) I've downloaded countless other note-taking and organizational programs that went into the trash long before the trial period ended. Most of them expected me to become as systematic and energetic as James Fallows.

I don't lack system. I was trained as a scholar, and my note-taking for the books I've written has been as extensive and as scrupulous as I know how to make it. But from the narrow perspective of my own writing, what I've realized is this: I don't need a complex program I can dump all my notes into as I gather them, like Agenda or even DevonThink. I need a simple program that can search outward, across the electronic galaxy of my hard drive, and find the notes I need no matter where, or in what format, I've dumped them.

I discovered last year, for instance, that the "find" command in Adobe Reader 6.0 ("search" in Adobe Reader 7.0) allows you to find any word in any set of PDF documents you specify. Instead of finding the word you want by searching, instance by instance, through a single text, this command gathers every occurrence, in context, into a single list, essentially creating a concordance entry for that word in that set of texts. To me this seemed like a miracle. I converted all the notes I'd taken for my new book - hundreds of pages of them -into PDF format (a simple matter that took only a few minutes). Suddenly I could see every occurrence of the word "tortoise," for instance, or "curate." To someone who is utterly text-based - a writer, in other words - this is an invaluable tool. What made it work, however, was the fact that I'd already typed hundreds of pages of notes into the computer. There is no real shortcut for that, if only because typing those notes was a way of imprinting them in my memory.

All the formatting power of the big word-processors - and the only one left standing is Word- isn't worth as much to me as the increasingly powerful search tools that are embedded in new operating systems. The best example is Spotlight, which appeared in the Apple OS X release called Tiger (10.4) earlier this year. Like most long-time computer users, I've almost completely absorbed the hierarchical thinking - the dendritic structure of folders and files - embedded beneath the surface of the desktop metaphor. I still file documents carefully and accurately, just as if I were still working in DOS. But that doesn't mean I remember where I've put them.

With Spotlight, I can type a word or phrase into the search window and find every occurrence on my computer. I can think of almost nothing that changes the feel of using a personal computer more than this utility. Nearly everything can be filed almost anywhere - perfect chaos under the hood-and it makes practically no difference.

For most computer users these days, the big question is how to aggregate usefully all the bits of information that flow through the machine - contacts, calendars, web-pages, emails, graphics, style-sheets, RSS feeds, and every other sort of flotsam - in a way that makes them easily accessible. (One example is Onlife, which tracks your actions in various applications. Another is Scrapbook, a Firefox extension, which allows you to clip web-pages to a virtual scrapbook as you surf the Web.) The important thing to notice about these tools is that they pertain almost wholly to a computer-defined universe. They can manipulate only a certain kind of reality - what used to be called data or information and is now, oddly enough, often called content.

The metaphors in these programs are a giveaway - scrapbooks and shoeboxes. I never write on or in or with a shoebox. These tools are handy only as long as I remember that they have nothing to do with writing. My office at home, like my office at The Times, is filled with non-metaphorical aggregations of information: stacks of books, mounds of magazines, piles of paper, notebooks filled with handwritten notes, files old enough to contain, for example, the invoices for my IBM Selectric and my first PC. I often spend a half hour looking for a book I know is somewhere in the house, just as I used to spend whole afternoons pleasantly lost in the library stacks at Princeton and Harvard. Over the years, I've probably learned as much from the books I found on the way to the book I was looking for as I have from the book I wanted. That is an example of the efficiency of inefficiency.

My own brain is the information manager I'm interested in. I need to be able to listen for hints that are utterly intuitive. As I am writing, I need to be alert to a feeling I can't quite explain, a realization I haven't realized yet, an analogy that's still missing some of its parts. I'm interested in understanding the shape of what I don't know because that too is a form of knowledge.

In a sense, writing editorials for The New York Times epitomizes the problem that many writers face - or believe they face - these days. I usually have, at most, a few hundred words to work in. On any subject - the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, the evils of factory farming, the fundamentalist attack on evolution - I can find reams of information very quickly. But good prose can carry only so much freight. In a few hundred words, there is room for only a few facts and one central idea, no matter how many interviews I've done or how many reports I've read. But all writing, really, is reticence. It is about saying one thing at a time, not everything at once. The trick isn't learning how to manage information. It's learning how to think. There is no software for that.

The Switch

I gave up in the spring of 2002. Eighteen years of Microsoft operating systems was enough. I had been through every version of DOS and nearly every version of Windows up to that point. If I knew as much about my tractor as I did about the fine points those systems, I would be able to rebuild its hydraulics from scratch. It made no difference. As Windows grew more and more complicated (or kludgier and kludgier) - and as Microsoft tried to make it seem simpler and friendlier to novices - it also got uglier and uglier. So it seemed to me. I moved my last Windows desktop to the basement, where I hope the mold is eating its hard-drive. I bought an iBook and have lived happily ever after.

It was just the right time. The iBook came with OS X 10.1. That's what I use. I never glanced at OS 9. I wanted nothing to do with the past - even Apple's past. I now no longer have to worry about crashes or screen freezes, regular occurrences in my Microsoft days. This has nothing to do with writing, I know, but it has everything to do with allowing me to keep my composure. The real reason for switching platforms, though, was to recover some of the pleasure of using a computer, which had almost vanished for me. The stability of my 12" iBook (and its successors, a 12" PowerBook and a 20" iMac) was important and so was ease of use and a sense of inventiveness. But what has won me over is the esthetics of the Apple cosmos. It's a fine-grained universe with smooth, clean edges. The world within the screen appears to recognize, and obey, the laws of gravity. Solids appear solid, not pixilated and porous. My Apple seemed surprisingly willing to leave me alone to do my work. It never nagged me. It never panicked. It had made a clean break with the past and it let me do so too.

I still write in Microsoft Word, I know. I'm happy with Word X for Mac, which hasn't been updated in a couple of years, and I will not upgrade to Office 2004. Even the name makes me nervous. Every now and then I hit just the wrong combination of keys, and the Office Assistant pops up. I loathe the Office Assistant - even the Mac version, which is far less annoying than the Windows one. Animated assistance is the last thing I want. It's as useless as a grammar checker. I suspect that after 21 years I've nearly come to the end of the Word road. I suppose I'll miss it when I find the right replacement. And yet I haven't missed Windows - or MS-DOS - yet. I don't think I ever will.

This, too, has nothing to do with writing. And yet everything has something to do with writing. That's the nature of the job.