||The inputting of wisdom
by Mark Czarnecki
Computers have influenced how writers write, what they write, where they live, and how they are published. They have even changed writers' political opinions. And the end is not in sight.
It's become such a cliche - when writers get together at a party, all they talk about is their computers, " says Linda Griffiths, with bemused resignation. She's actually happy to be part of this particular cliche and fondly recalls airplane trips with her machine, the tender moments of watching hawk eyed as it eases down the conveyor belt, the `''Don't-worry-lady-I've-seen-it-all" look of the baggage man when she adjures him to "Please be careful - that's my computer!" Griffiths is one of numberless writers who have embraced the computer and are revelling in the affair. After the first frustrating weeks when she imagined the obstinate machine banished "with a $100 price tag to a garage sale," she poured out a 350-page novel in two months: ''It was like playing a piano concerto," she says, a new
horizon for an author "just branching into sentences" after concentrating her professional energies on theatre and film.
Rare indeed is the writer in Canada today who hasn't at least tried a computer in one form or another. The definition of what actually constitutes a computer has expanded too: it's difficult now to buy an office typewriter without a basic electronic memory and some word processing capacity. However, according to a survey commissioned by the Writers' Union, Canadian writers have been buying real microcomputers - mostly Kaypros, Apples and IBM PCs or compatibles - for amounts varying from $1,150 to 530,000, with an average price of around $3,000.
Although most fly just as high as Griffiths once they've mastered the basics, quite a few have crashed. Matt Cohen states bluntly, "Several years ago I realized I hated my computer. What I liked most about it at first was that it freed me from the noise of the electric typewriter - and then I realized that handwriting made no noise at all. With the overall cost of running a machine, plus possible breakdowns factored in, I'm convinced it's actually cheaper to work by hand and have it retyped. I'm completely de-addicted now."
Hardware problems grounded Paul Wilson for three months soon after acquiring his first machine, and he concluded that his mind had become less focused when writing - the computer had made him lazy: "I've put the idea out of my mind that it's wonderful for writing. I don't get carried away any more with the romance of the machine. There's been a loss of innocence, and now I see it as just a tool." Then there are those like Margaret Atwood, who found the inability to touch-type stopped her from romancing the machine at all: "I'm too old to change my writing style - I think about it as preGutenberg. I'm essentially a pen writer, very illegible but very quick. I find I can track my mental processes just - fine with a pen.
Without Pollino every writer in Canada, it seems generally true that nonfiction writers; are the most likely to create directly on their machines. Short-story writers can go either way, while the novelist inputting directly is scarce. On the other hand, playwrights and screenwriters - anybody whose text requires a fixed format page after page - find them indispensable. And although Cohen and Wilson may have their doubts, there's a consensus that a word processor's editing and re-draft capabilities save vast amounts of time and money.
Few authors wax as enthusiastic on the subject as Silver Donald Cameron, who claims his income quadrupled in the first year of computer use. When interviewed he was about to acquire a fourth machine to aid in his radio drama, public relations, speech writing and magazine projects, to name just a few. "I think of myself as a writer plus, almost an information broker," says Cameron. "I gather huge amounts of information and think about different ways to cut and slice it. I may end up sending some to a Japanese as well as to a Toronto publisher." Like other writers living on Cape Breton, he relies heavily on modems and electronic mail, which have removed the disadvantages of living away from a large urban centre. And one unforeseen effect of the computer has been modified attitudes towards cultural politics: "I'm less exercised about free trade than I might have been five years ago. I dip into international data bases, send stuff back and forth across the U.S. border - that border seems less real to me now."
Prose writers like Cameron are not concerned with the form of the information they convey as much as the format suitable to the market they're addressing. But many poets find computers open up creative fields they had only dreamed of playing in before. "If notation - the looks of the poem as a guide to how the reader should read - is an issue for a poet, then a computer like a Macintosh, with Its different fonts and typefaces, is an amazing tool," says bpNichol. The graphics capabilities of the Macintosh and the Commodore AmIga, which features a voice synthesizer, are especially appealing. Nichol himself experiments with animated concrete poetry and text substitution ("I'm meddling with the reading experience"): in "Translating Translating Apollinaire," each word of the poem is replaced by another in an apparently random sequence so that the reader's eye is drawn back and forth, up and down, over the text, absorbing a completely new poem each time.
But the more sophisticated the experiment with hardware and software, the less chance there is of delivering the work to an audience. Frank Davey, co-editor with Fred Wah of the eleotronic magazine SwiftCurrent, believes computers still function largely as intermediaries for delivering printed pages. SwiftCurrent is an interactive data base which writers can plug into via modems to send out work, invite comments, share ideas and print out whatever texts they like. But Davey rules out the possibility of distributing complex programs for the present because "You end up with the ghettoization of that material among certain adequately equipped users. The work ends up as "gallery showings" with a very limited audience."
One author available on SwiftCurrent is Ian Ferrier, whose interactive serial novel The Heart of the Machine is also being sent chapter by chapter through computer information services such as Compuserve, based in Columbus, Ohio. Tire Heart of the Machine, apparently a psycho-sci-fi fantasy, is delivered every two weeks; soon to appear is the first subscriber-suggested character, a San Francisco barmaid into heavy metal.
Ferrier's publisher, Dramas Editions in Montreal, has also experimented with graphic works such as Schizotexte, which melds poems by three Montreal poets with complex Madntosh-generated graphics that recall a surrealist chapbook. With an air of sadder but wiser, Schizotexte's creator Former Anderson says that the work, which was runner-up in the books category of the 1905 Desktop Publisher of the Year awards sponsored by MacUser magazine and Apple computer, was incredibly labour-intensive, too complicated to typeset and impervious to market distribution.
Desktop publishing has become a buzz phrase, and writers are divided on its virtues and vices. Brian Fawcett, who like Davey is concerned that literature is already being ghettoized, feels that desktop will direct all written work to specialized markets. But he adds that "desktop could also end up with the proletarianization of the writer, which may not be a bad thing." Paul Wilson disagrees strongly, convinced that the writer's ability to control more aspects of production also means that the writer does more work without necessarily getting paid for it: "Desktop is the best example of the black hole of labour - people have forgotten that a book is a collective creation." According to Wilson, as publishers get used to writers handing in cleaner copy, they may demand camera-ready, copy-edited manuscripts, thereby evading their own responsibilities to the writer and passing the buck at the writer's financial and artistic expense.
Whatever the delivery system, computers have visibly influenced how writers write. "Writing is an accretion of thinking," says Fawcett, who has 50 to 60 short stories in progress stored in his data fries and makes full use of the computer's instant retrieval facilities to write them several lines at a time. The dissolution of traditional forms goes hand in hand with his dis-integrated creative style. Fawcett admires B.W. Powe's The Solitary Oudaw because it isn't "self-consciously literary - it breaks down literary barriers, and that voice putting together ideas is a lot more exciting than 'serious' literature." He concludes that the easy lateral movement of word processing is "inimical to the novel as a genre," and that "the concentration required for a novel now seams artificial. It's no accident that I've written four books of short stories rather than a novel."
Contrast that with Cohen's feelings on the subject, and the range of comment is evident: "All the words look bright and shiny on the screen, and it all looks okay - but when it comes out on the printout, it's not all okay. For short story writers, the actual texture of the words is necessary for the process of creating. I've started at least ten short stories on the computer and never finished them once they go in, that's their natural place." Another quarrel Cohen has with writing short stories on the computer is that "I like to see what I've done at the same time as I write - I generally have ten pages both typed and handwritten spread out in front of me."
This difficulty with seeing the work all at once to get a sense of the overall effect bothers many writers; Davey says that it's a problem with every new technology, and that for the first year on the computer he was always working from printouts. Now he has acquired that good "overall" feeling, along with other perks: "I'm looking for a poetry discourse that moves great distances laterally and sequentially. With a typewritten page, the medium interrupts those flows. I can't record fast enough to get all the association I want."
Sarah Sheard has also tried composing on the computer, but is now back to a pen: "Looking at the screen was splitting my attention - it felt like writing with the brakes on. I was always editing and correcting." The experience showed her that "the printed page gives a sense of how the work paces emotionally - it's tied somehow to the length of time it takes to read a page, and the screen doesn't give that." Sheard recalls that the late Marian Engel had similar objections to the computer: "She said she needed the physical activity of writing and typing. The amount of time required to do that was exactly right for the creative process."
Sheard is an avowed proselytizer for computers, an enthusiasm not shared by many women writers. Sheard herself initially felt that a computer was "male, non-creative, non-plastic, nonflowing," even though she first encountered them in the user-friendly environment of Coach House Press where Stan Bevington has pioneered computer use in publishing. The right kind of hardware may count for more with women than with men; Sheard looked at IBM clones but didn't like them and can't imagine any computer as comfortable as a Mac. Another factor discouraging women from using computers may be pure economics. The earnings of women authors are substantially lower on average than those of men and, as Sheard says, "You don't want to want something you can't afford."
At the heart of computerphobia, female or male, is the fear of all technology, the fear that the machine will control its creator rather than vice versa and run amok. Closely linked to this fear myth is the belief that creative inspiration comes from the "soul" or some place other than the definable limits of human physiology; it's not just coincidence that, as Percy Shelley articulated this prime tenet of Romanticism, Mary Shelley was busy writing Frankenstein.
The nature of creativity is a time-honoured debate, but the computer has jerked it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. As in the debate between the Ancients and Modems, it's easy to line up two sides. The new Moderns are like the old Romantics who believe that the Word is a shapeless essence, and that the writer's task is to recognize inspiration arid give it form: syntax, grammar and spelling are handmaidens, often tedious ones, to the noble Idea. Fawcett's notion of writing as accretion, and the words of poet and computerphile Ken Stange - "Writing is really editing, and selection is the key word in creativity'' - reflect this philosophy. The new Moderns readily embrace computers as just another source of inspiration, and see nothing wrong with calling the random generation of words by a software program poetry if it meets acceptable criteria for a poem. All in all, as Fawcett readily admits, "Word processing isn't great for people who have it all thought out in their heads beforehand."
On the other side, the new Ancients have problems with the now - legendary results of a recent poetry contest in the Maritimes won by a woman poet with a piece randomly generated by computer software. "The best poetry still comes from a human mind," says John Oughton. "Humans can create artificial intelligence, but they can't create an artificial poem - it'll never be as good as what Years wrote with a pencil." Wilson's belief that the "layering" process endemic to computer use made him lazy, abolishing the need to focus and meet the challenge of getting it right the first time, is a typical Ancient argument. In this view, "literacy" and "literature" are synonymous: writing isn't something you stick good spelling and grammar onto, they're inseparable. The Word is shaped - and created - by all the human faculties, and the process of bringing them to bear all at once is a prerequisite to creativity.
These issues won't be resolved tomorrow, but their themes echo throughout computerland. Computerphobia extends beyond hardware to software too - and what exactly is in all those data bases anyway? According to Fortner Anderson, "Data bases are like wanting into a huge Kresge's with thousands of closed boxes. You pay $10 a minute to sift through absolutely worthless material." Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing, asserts Anderson: "Soon the techno-fascists will achieve their goal of having every home wired to receive two gigabytes of information daily - people for all their good intentions are allowing a world of total social control." And when Timothy Lary runs a software house with the slogan "Turn on, tune in, boot up," it's time for solitary outlaws to take a stand. Matt Cohen: "That computer hiss really bothers me. I feel like I'm handing over my mind to the technological persona of society - the act so fundamentally undermines the iconoclastic process of writing." .
So what comes next? With the prospect of vastly more powerful machines looming on the horizon, the more experimental writers want to address and redress the old mythologies. A dominant concern is to involve the reader more, to break down the barriers between human and machine. bpNichol, for example, feels that the computer's "form of address" - the prompt telling the user to enter a command -- is an alienating device because it implicitly addresses the user as "you." Says Nichol. "I want to get closer to the reader in a more penetrating way than with 'transparent' interactive fiction. The direct secondperson narrative favoured by children's interactive fiction is in fact far more alienating than a first- or third-person persona. The problem is to imagine a voice but not make it explicit, to try to get the feel of looking through the computer with your own eyes."
But interactive narratives, the three-dimensional access of data bases known as "hypertext," voice synthesizers, and software that translates videocamera images into laser jet-graphics are still at the cutting edge. So much is already available that even avid software junkies like Silver Donald Cameron cart barely find time to incorporate the latest versions of their favourite word processing programs. The rest have settled down after the initial outburst of passion and decided that, after all, the computer is just a tool. But through the loud and not so loud cries of enthusiasm runs a note of melancholy, a sense of paradise lost well expressed by Fred Wah. a confirmed user: "Every writer I visit has a computer - it's taken for granted. But it's a real time sink - all those possibilities. Sometimes I just wish the lights would go out and I'd be left there with a paper and pencil."