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.