Friday, March 21, 2008

Old-Time Writing Cowboys

Did you know that Norman Mailer got a monthly stipend while he worked on his second novel? AND it took him eleven years??

A monthly stipend!

For eleven years!

They sure don't do that anymore, leastways, not that I've heard.

Someone had a bit of a survey on first-book advances over the last thirty years. They haven't much gone up.

And Angie got me to thinking: things were different, writing-wise.

Like, I've read of of writers who would dictate their story. What a different process that must be! I must hit the backspace key 10 - 40 times per line I write.

I can not, and I mean, I cannot say a sentence coherently. I'm serious. My students somehow understand and put the words I spit out into coherent form. I honestly don't understand how they understand what I speak. Sometimes I can just gesture to the piano, play something, make a few more gestures and grunts, throw in a few ums, move their arm around a little, and they actually know what I mean.

It's bizarre.

And then there are the typewriter writers, who'd write a page, and that's it. If you make a mistake, you have to type the whole damn page again. And backspacing on a typewriter ... well, that's like a five-minute task! (Remember the correcting ribbon, fluid, tape, and all that other stuff?)

Then there were the longhand writers, who had others type up their stories for them. I can't even imagine all the strike-throughs and arrows and scribbles! When I write on paper, I'm suddenly gripped by the need that Every. Letter. Must. Look. Pretty.

I don't know what my words are, but the letters look neat. Fountain pen, pretty ink, everything. I love to write with a fountain pen. I just can't write with a fountain pen. It's more like drawing. Story doesn't happen.

And just think how much their hands must have hurt at the end of the day, from all that writing! My longhand writing muscles are so out shape that if I write even a couple sentences, my hand cramps up!

I read about the writers in the old days, and I think of them a bit like cowboys. Despite the better advances and monthly stipends, writing was a lot rougher in the old days. Harder work, I imagine.

I mean, they really walked four miles a day to school, through snow, with no shoes.

Me? I love the feel of keys under my fingers. It's a bit of an addiction, really. At least, half of my joy of writing, is the feel of the keys under my fingers, the letters blipping up across the screen.

And you should see my right hand ring finger on the backspace key. Man, can it fly!!!  (Yes, I know I'm supposed to use my pinky. But I don't.)

Life without cut and paste? Can you imagine?

I seriously question if I would have, could have, been a writer in the old days. What do you think?

11 bonus scribbles:

Melanie Avila 3/21/2008 02:25:00 PM  

I love your comment that the words must look pretty. I received a fancy journal for Christmas and decided I'd use it for notes on my next wip. THEN I got the bright idea to WRITE my next wip IN it. I've been hung up more times because I don't want to make the page look bad.

The beginning ideas came to me before I'd released the journal from its plastic wrap so the first several pages DO look nice and neat. Now? Not so much.

As for cramps, it's not as bad as I expected. I need a new keyboard so typing isn't as enjoyable lately.

lainey bancroft 3/21/2008 03:06:00 PM  

Nope. Not me. I probably would have scribbled away in journals or something, but at the end of the day even I wouldn't have been able to read it.

Angie 3/21/2008 04:36:00 PM  

If you mean the typewriter old days, I fully intended to so I guess I could have. I'm very glad I don't have to, though. :P

Pen and paper? I don't know. Dip pen and paper?? Ack! I mean, I suppose if that's what you grew up with, and how everyone did it, then you just did it. In fact, I started my first novel when I was thirteen, in a composition-size spiral notebook. I got the first chapter and a bit of the second down in there, at which point I got a typewriter for my (fifteenth) birthday and typed everything out of the notebook and kept going mechanically. I suppose if I'd lived in the 19th century I'd have written entire stories by hand. But again, I'm very glad I don't have to.

One other thing I forgot in the last comment thread is that when I'm writing I'll think of The Perfect Line and it'll only stay with me for a few seconds. I have to get it down during that time or it's gone. Lost. Forever. When I was writing on a typewriter (even though my first typewriter was electric) there were times when I lost a line before I finished typing it. And there were times when I had a whole paragraph flow into my head, which sounds great except that by the time I "got" the last line, the first line had already faded away, and while struggling to remember that I'd forget the rest, and the whole paragraph -- that Perfect Paragraph -- would vanish. I don't know how many times I sat there figuratively banging my head against the wall trying to get back those perfect lines. It took a lot of effort to just give up, let them go, and write something else. :(

It still happens now, but I'm so much faster with the keyboard than I was with the typewriter that it happens less often, thank whomever.


Bernita 3/21/2008 05:08:00 PM  

Hands hurt?
Not really.
But one develops some interesting finger callouses.

Stephen Parrish 3/21/2008 06:33:00 PM  

I wrote my first few stories on a typewriter. On one hand the thought of going back, of writing an entire novel on a typewriter, gives me chills. On the other hand there's something to be said for it; many of the stories I read today have a highly polished feel to them that they didn't have in the old days. I find myself wondering if my own stuff is overwritten.

Edie 3/21/2008 11:13:00 PM  

I wrote my first book in a notebook. Because my writing was so bad, I went to a typewriter, then a computer. LOVE computers. When I read Jane Austen, I think that she wrote all those books in longhand. I'm awed by her and other writers from her era.

StarvingWriteNow 3/22/2008 10:54:00 AM  

Of course you would be a writer, and you'd have "longhand" muscles on your muscles, baby!!

I enjoy writing longhand because the pressure is off, if that makes sense. Seeing a blinking cursor on a blank page sends the stress level up--worse, a blinking cursor after a really great run of words and I"m panicking, thinking "what now?"

Erica Orloff 3/22/2008 08:18:00 PM  

I love my keyboard!!! Cute and paste!!

But I used to write in longhand . . . filled reams of paper and notebooks with my scribblings.

To go back to it, I'd rather poke my eyes out.

Travis Erwin 3/23/2008 10:43:00 PM  

Nope not me. I never could have handled writing pre-computer. Why, I'd rather have rode the range and used pages from the Sears Roebuck catalog in the white house than to live without the backspace button.

writtenwyrdd 3/24/2008 06:36:00 AM  

I have this OCD thing that makes me need to ahve the page look neat. When I wrote longhand, progress was really slow because I'd have to rewrite it too often. and typing was nearly as bad! And after having carpal tunnel, if I had to write long hand I'd get maybe a page a day written and that's it!

Barrie 3/24/2008 04:41:00 PM  

Yes, I think I would've been. But I'd also have been VERY grumpy. :)