Unloved Words

Photo by nodditect on Flickr.

In his 1985 short story “The Unprocessed Word,” John Varley writes a hysterical indictment of the word processor and the encroaching digital frontier threatening the future of heartfelt prose. The piece is mostly farce, poking fun at the fallacious marrying of process and purity that writers so often indulge. One passage in particular has stuck with me in the decades since I first read Blue Champagne:

Floppy disks lack sincerity.

Think about it. When the “word processor” turns off his or her machine… the words all go away!

The screen goes blank. The words no longer exist except as encoded messages on a piece of plastic known as a floppy disk. These words cannot be retrieved except by whirling the disk at great speed—a process that can itself damage the words. Words on a floppy disk are un-loved words, living a forlorn half-life in the memory until they are suddenly spewed forth at great and debilitating speed by a dot-matrix printer that actually burns them into the page!

The story ends with the author so completely embracing the digital age that he replaces his own name with a string of numbers and a barcode, praising the effortless luxury of writing-by-software (MacConflict, MacDialogue, MacMystery, MacWestern, Adverb-Away. VisiTheme, MacDeal-With-The-Devil…), where the writer pens an opening line and the machine does the rest, spinning compelling yarns out of algorithms and cold equations.

In many ways, “The Unprocessed Word” is now a charming relic, a jeremiad against dot-matrix printers, floppy disks, and other technologies rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. Writing software designed to short-circuit the writing process has indeed come to pass, but I think it’s safe to say we’re in no danger of seeing machines snatch the storytelling yoke from humanity. We can suck the life out of our narratives just as efficiently with human focus groups, thank you very much.

I read Varley’s Blue Champagne at a particularly formative time in my life, and for a long while, I actually believed that digital words were “unloved words,” lacking some ineffable virtue that only physical media could bestow. At the age of eighteen, I wrote my first sci-fi novel, Free Enterprise, on a Royal typewriter. (Incidentally, the central plot of Free Enterprise had to do with the pursuit by several parties of a box full of secret battle plans — all written on paper. Apparently, even in my visions of the far-flung future, the dead-tree format persisted.) Even when I had to toss out and retype vast swaths of my own book because I hated the ending, I still believed, somehow, in the inherent superiority of the manual typewriter.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that “unloved words” could be a good thing.

Like so many beginning writers, I suffered from horrific writer’s block, a block born entirely of ambition. I wanted to write deathless, genre-defying, life-changing prose. Prose to make the women swoon and the men shed manly tears — and by God I wanted to write it perfectly the first time and never look back. As you can guess, I spent a lot of time staring at blank pages, and later at blank screens, wondering where the hell all that perfection had gone to.

Unfortunately, this approach:

Step 1) Deathless, genre-defying, tear-inducing prose
Step 2) Publish, receive adoration of millions

Doesn’t work, as much as we would love to eradicate those troublesome intermediate steps.

I learned to fall out of love with my words from reading Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power. Elbow introduced me to the concept of the freewrite — simply writing for ten or fifteen minutes without stopping. The freewrite leaves no time to search for just the right phrase — if you can’t think of anything to write, you just type “I can’t think of anything to write” until you run out the clock. The point is to break down the block and accept that forward motion is preferable to poetic stasis.

When he was finished, Elbow confessed, he would just throw the freewrites away. That part in particular filled me with horror — but there might be something valuable in there! My hoarding instinct recoiled at the very thought. I’ve never actually gotten over this — I keep all my freewrites, and have even mined a few gems out of that compost heap of unloved words.

As writers, I think we’re born with an inherent love of words — why else would we give so much of our lives to them? — but we don’t have the luxury of blind, unalloyed adoration. Our love must be tempered by craft and discretion if it is to mean anything. Sometimes we have to be merciless and leave beautiful phrases to die a forgotten death. Sometimes we have to lock words in a dark closet until we find a proper home for them. And sometimes we have to reluctantly admit that our love is actually seething hate.

And that’s why I’m now a firm believer in writing with digital tools. They make the cutting that much faster, if not necessarily less painful.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve toyed with the notion of going back to writing longhand or with a typewriter, mainly in the aim of curbing the habit of continually editing as I write. When I sit down now I am impelled to go back to the beginning, to read anew and change a phrase here, a paragraph there. By the time I’ve gotten through that, I’ve burned up willpower, kicked myself sore in the ass and am not exactly steeped in creative juices. I do think the prose gets better as a result, but there’s just not enough NEW stuff to call it progress.

    • I’m pretty much with you. My handwriting is my single biggest block to longhand inspiration. I can barely read what I wrote, and my wrist starts aching almost instantly.

  • Joni

    Not that I write anything beyond blog posts, but given how long it takes me to write & edit even a short post, I cannot imagine using anything other than the computer. I tend to allow myself to just write the post upfront, only correcting spelling along the way, and then I go back, read it, take out most of the commas, read it again, tweak it… and so forth. Then I usually decide it ends too abruptly, so I have to write a better conclusion. Then the process starts again. Ugh.

    Doing that on paper? I’d have killed all of the forests in the entire Inland Northwest by now.

    • Same here. Not only all the forests, but I would likely be literally drowned in red ink from all the crossing-out I would do.

  • You know I can’t disagree with the necessity of unloved digital words. But in a hundred words or less, it’s hard for me to say just how fantastic planning, and writing in a different medium can shake up the mental process. I write my poems longhand, rewrite them in longhand, then type & edit them digitally. Their shortness is mainly what allows this process to work. Couldn’t imagine doing that for novels.

    • I’m no expert, but I would think poetry is uniquely suited to longhand writing. Poetry on the computer would seem almost sterile to me. Weird.

  • The paper hoarder in me shudders at the notion of throwing away a single word I’ve committed to ink … but the burgeoning editor in me ruthlessly strips out entire paragraphs, pages and scenes. Oh the horror. A middle ground was arrived upon by allowing myself to file the ousted words in a bottom desk drawer. Entire worlds lurk in that cold dark recess … loved a little less but never forgotten. Sigh.

    • All mine go into little text files, spread across their digital universe in a bleak diaspora.

  • Great post! 😀

    Maybe I was born too far into the technological era *age denial*, but I simply don’t understand the whole “superiority” aspect of writing longhand. I’m not saying any of that’s going on in this blog post, but I hear it in podcasts, read it in blogs, etc.; how there is something unsavoury about typing your words into a word processor; how it somehow demeans the art of writing.

    I loved writing longhand in my old diary, but I use my WP for my current entries; purely because my hands can’t keep up with my thought process (or at least will take it off on a different tangent), and my hand tires easily.

    The freewriting sounds excellent; my friend recently took part in “The Artist’s Way” programme which included writing pages of freehand called “morning pages”. He highly recommends it for stirring up creativity. If I didn’t already get up at 5am, I’d do it myself! I may give it a go in the evenings though.

    • Thank you! Good to see you again, Catherine!

      I would recommend experimenting with the time, if you’re able… one person’s morning pages are another person’s evening pages.