Processing Words

I composed my master’s thesis on the word processor of an IBM personal computer, which I had now owned for some five years.  Since owning several PC’s and a couple of laptops, I’ve never written a letter, article, or formal piece of creative writing with a typewriter, manual or electric.  When I write with a pencil and pen, it is only to enter raw, free-writing notations in my four-by-five-inch wire-bound journals, which I cherish as much as my finished manuscripts. 

Count me among those who love electronic word processing.  Like most writers, my literary mind is always working: I rarely get through a day when I don’t observe something, no matter how mundane, and then, in my head, attempt to render that something in the most fitting words.  Yet I cannot truly weigh the effect of a word, phrase, or sentence until it exits my brain and appears either in graphite or ink on a piece of paper, or in pixels on the screen of a computer.  And then I often tinker with what I’ve written, right down to the word.  Surely the software pioneers of word processing, while not necessarily creative writers themselves, had an intuitive understanding of this tendency. This yearning. This neurosis.  Sure, one can draw a line through an unsatisfying word, phrase, or sentence, a la Hemingway and millions of other scribblers who sweated over paper prior to the nineteen eighties, but the shortcoming remains in view, an annoying distraction.  Word processing banishes the imperfection, or at least sidelines it for reconsideration at a later date.  (I have an ongoing text file I call the “bone pile.”)  As surely as a human being is constantly weighing the most mundane decisions on a minute-by-minute basis, the writer is constantly weighing words.  Electronic word processing thus lends itself well to the obviously dynamic process of literary composition.   

Of course, the potential hazard of this is that the article, short story, or book is never written; the pile of raw clay―that is, the first of many necessary drafts―never makes it to the potter’s wheel or the pedestal, because the writer―and here I refer to the prose writer, not the poet―enthralled by his or her ability to tinker, erase, and replace on the PC or Mac, obsesses for hours over a word, phase, sentence, or paragraph and fails to projectile vomit the commonly recommended daily yield of a thousand or so words, fails to acknowledge that successful writers never get it perfect the first time and that a published book is the product of entire manuscripts drafted multiple times.  (And I’m indebted to John Nichols for this truth.[1]  

The final draft of my master’s thesis, printed on my dot matrix device―at the time, another fabulous innovation―numbered some 29,000 words.  I successfully discussed―as opposed to “defended,” which smacks of an adversarial relationship that did not exist―my manuscript with my thesis advisors: two professors of English and one of American studies.  Today, my thesis, along with thousands of others with identical bindings, rests in the basement of UNM’s Zimmerman Library, accessible to all, likely read by none. 

As I have written, my thesis yielded a piece in a literary journal.  In addition, my profile of Bobby won honorable mention at The Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award for Literary Achievement.  The highlight of that award was attending the awards ceremony on a beautiful fall afternoon at Frank and his gracious wife Barbara’s home in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, just north of Taos and at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  It was a thrill to meet the great, aged Frank Waters, still lucid but now wheelchair-bound and wrapped against the chill in a colorful serape, and stand amid the chattering aspens and upon the soil that so anchored, mystified, and inspired him.  The following summer, Frank died at the age of ninety-two.

[1] Meanwhile, John, who told our class that he wrote by hand all of his first drafts and typed all subsequent drafts of his novels, and who, with typical humor, once dismissed the word processor as the technical equivalent of “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” is now, if videos of him on the Internet are any indication, writing electronically.  The lure is obviously irresistible.

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