This will look the same to you, but there’s a new method generating these words—actually an old method brought back, a desperate Hail Mary to see if I can return any joy to my writing. Prior to, oh, around 2011, any fiction I ever wrote started of the same way these words are—in a lined moleskin. The reason I started writing in the first place was because it was the only art form to which I had reliable access. If I had had my own bedroom in which I had privacy, access to musical instruments and encouragement to sing my heart out if that’s what I wanted to do, almost certainly that is what I would have chosen to do. But life doesn’t always go the way we want it to go. No one chooses the conditions or era of their existence. Any freedom any individual manages to create for themselves happens within already strictly delineated and unequally distributed conditions.
I’ve been reminded of this this past week as I’ve thrown myself back into the unjust dilemma of Edmond Dantes, self-appointed and titular hero The Count of Monte Cristo the same way he throws himself, or rather is thrown, into the cold ocean from the prison island Chateau D’If in a sack disguised as his dead friend the Abbe Faria. I realize belatedly that I should have offered a spoiler alert back there but, on the other hand, as The Count of Monte Cristo was written, oh, let’s see now, about 170 years ago, you probably weren’t ever going to get to it if you hadn’t already, that’s just statistical probability. Alexandre Dumas’ take on an innocent man imprisoned unjustly hinges on an anonymous letter written by two envious so-called friends. To disguise their identity the false accusation is written with the left hand. Dumas notes in his narration that unlike words written with the right hand, the left hand produces no distinct style—that the awkwardness and unnatural nature of writing in such a way that, almost no matter how much you try to prevent it, your hand drags itself over the ink you’ve just laid down—right when it is freshest, and smears away whatever uniqueness may fleetingly have just been there is itself the absence of the possibility of style—a shared quirk amongst other natural deviants of leftness, an inherited singularity defect.
It’s the same thing in tennis, where reliable commentators on TennisTV assure me, left-handed players enjoy a natural advantage on their serve—that right-handed players cannot physically duplicate left-handed players’ general angles and natural loops on their serve, that they exist only when produced by the left side of the body. When I started to play tennis, a natural lefty, I noticed almost immediately that my entire game centred on bizarrely angled slices and the way I kept hitting off-kilter, rainbow-arced shots that started of like defensive lobs and came down like a corkscrew—confounding me who had hit it, as much as my opponent left with the circus challenge of trying to track down the bounce of a ball that has no idea where it is going next. My first tennis instructor, upon seeing me arrive with my racquet gripped in my left hand commented, even before he‘d seen me hit, that I played with a lot of spin and spontaneity and that I probably drove whoever I played with absolutely crazy as a result. This hit me like Nightmare Alley-level prognostication on his part, like he could communicate with the spirits of all the great tennis dead and knew all the dread Olde Grand Slam secrets. It is exactly how I play. But how could he know that? Because, to a large extent, whenever I play tennis it’s not actually me playing. It feels like tennis is playing me. That style I play with was in me, I didn’t choose to play that way at all. Indeed, the experience I get from playing tennis does not feel like it has anything to do with sports or competition. Hitting a tennis ball with a racquet held in my left hand feels fun for me the same way dancing does—when you’re not trying to win anything, you’re just seeing what your body can do, you’re learning how it likes to move. Busting moves and hitting backhand slice feels to me fundamentally like forms of the same thing.
Writing by hand—by left hand—gives me the same tactile pleasure. Writing with ink is, from a left-handed perspective, a gritty, physical endeavour. This is the middle of the fourth page in a single sitting and already the third finger of my left hand is stained blue and my hand aches from the effort of holding a pen for such a length of time. These are not complaints. In the same way you’d never trust a guitarist without calluses on their fingers or a painter without paint under their nails, it seems wrong to be a writer who’s forgotten what ink feels like and how it feels to hear the pen scratch marks and to compose, anew, at a place so much more suited to thought—or, at least, human thought: the thought origin behind “word-processing” (such as composition on the keyboard of a computer has come to be known) is human, but not at the individual level, more of a collectivist corporate computer consciousness, that views humans as sub-artificial intelligent operators of machines capable of working at post-human levels of speed indefinitely. Even to log onto Microsoft Word is, in some sense, to accept this post-human vision of yourself, acquiescence to the idea that generating word count quickly is the primary definition of being a writer.
As an academic, I was grateful to Word and the ease it gave to keeping track of notation. I have never written an academic essay by hand. On the other hand (but still the left hand) almost all of the fiction I’ve published started off in notebooks like this. Which is not to say that anything I’ve written by hand has been good or that my experiences are intended as universal prescription. I am as completely capable of writing atrociously, nonsensical sentences by hand as I am when I compose from the keyboard. But there’s an ease to typing on the computer that makes me uneasy. As a professor, as a corporate journalist before that, I’ve become too proficient at typing. My WPM is insanely high and if I’d been typing I’d have finished this—not only where I am at the moment but after the end which I’ve already envisioned but can’t physically write fast enough to get to yet—an hour ago or more, I’d already have moved onto something else—to my detriment and yours. The only advantage computer writing offers me is the ability to get it over with more quickly.
The problem for me with this is—I like writing. Actually writing. I like writing until my hand is shaking and my forearm is cramped. I like the excitement of not being able to get the words from my head to my shaky hand to the page as fast as my mind is thinking them. I cannot get this experience when I type. Indeed, the facility with which I can generate computer word count has an adversarial, almost dulling, effect on my mind. My purpose is no longer to write well and to feel energy from the physical act, but to get in and out of the process as quickly, as painlessly, as possible—with the least amount of disruption to the rest of my day.
Get it up/Get it in/ Get it out/ Don’t mess my hair-do, as some old friends of mine used to sing to the tune of “Rawhide”.
Writing this way also, it seems to me, neutralizes any actual left-handedness. Does a lefty still write like a lefty when they’re typing?
I don’t think so.
The joy of being left-handed is about having to figure out for yourself how your body and mind are trying to work this thing out, because however it is that right-handed people are teaching you, that’s not going to work. When you forget that, the best you can hope for is to become a passable simulation of something that you are not, destined forever to make your body and mind work in ways that don’t come naturally to you.
It's not just in the realm of the writing where my new approach is to return to the old approach. I’ve had it with life online and personal computers. I exited social media ten years ago. I abandoned mobile technology last year. Yet most every day—these past ten years—started in front of a computer. I see no way you could be a full-time professor and not live like this—it’s a professional necessity. Logging onto Windows while making coffee—the two actions are entirely habitual at this point—so ingrained that they feel fully natural in the most innate, organic sense possible.
And, I almost think, if I didn’t still possess after something like 32 moves in my 35 years as a grown-up, two sturdy plastic containers consisting mostly of notebooks like this, I’d have forgotten. To the extent that anything I’ve written survives me it will largely because of my obstinate, left-handed preference for writing by hand even when doing so—probably especially because doing so—is cumbersome and clumsy—a lot like me.
Was Cumbersome and Clumsy
Would be about the kindness epithet I could hope for at this point.
My notebooks (in addition to reminding me that for decades I started, ended and middled a lot days not online, but just dicking around in the old moleskin—as they say) also offer proof that I can write poorly in all of the formats. But even the bad writing in notebooks still provided me with a good writing experience. If nothing else these notebooks collect for me time that would otherwise have been squandered in ways not recapturable.
This is not the case with the three novels I composed directly to the keyboard. If they exist, I never see them. Each of them I wrote so quickly that I hardly recall what they were about. I can’t, in the moment at the end of a long, writing session, remember the names of many of the characters. I doubt that Alexandre Dumas ever forgot the name Edmond Dantes. My copy is 875 pages and these are pages slogged out with writing utensils that required, one would imagine, a pace considerably slower even than the one this ballpoint presently allows me. Half the pleasure of reading Monte Cristo is imagining Dumas in Paris, 1846 scribbling in messy ink by candlelight a story so engrossing he just couldn’t stop and all the while never suspecting that the words he was leaving behind him would live 200 years after he was gone. How could anyone suspect such a thing? Two hundred years from now puts us at exactly the year 2I Can’t Even Envision What Kind of Pants People Will Be Wearing, in the name of our lord, A.D.
I feel like the only thing I can safely say about that year is that my writing on Substack is not going to be one of the things that has made it. Not because of its merits (or, in the case of most of my recent contributions there/here, lack thereof) but because the writing on Substack, like most of the writing on the internet, is not writing at all—but rather its technological simulation. As with many computer simulations, what the computer can do outstrips what the human is capable of. Computer writing allows us to write in a painless way that our brains can’t fully, reliably or adequately keep up with. It produces expertly formatted essays containing incomplete thoughts produced too quickly and offered to the public without the intellectual digestion writing by hand requires.
Reading the internet, or rather reading things on the internet, reminds me of some of the music I acquire on Bandcamp—like everyone for a couple generations has grown up with music programs as normalized as word processors and where everyone knows how to format/produce the shit out of everything but nobody has anything, let alone anything original, to say anymore. I feel sometimes like I’m listening to the software’s capabilities rather than any autonomous, subjectively human project.
This is not an individual defect.
In both cases, the computer simulation offers the original task as something to be made as effort-free as possible for the human. It fundamentally alters the material substance being created. Art, it seems to me, is what happens when arduous work becomes its own pleasure, you’re losing yourself to the simultaneous joy and pain that comes from trying to master anything without the help of a computer. You’re not meant to work or learn so quickly. Mastery’s not meant to come so easily. Everyone suffers from this ease even if, especially when, it feels naturally, exactly, the opposite way. At best, it’s mastery of a technology mediating, unhelpfully, between the actual art—writing, music—not mastery of the art itself.
Anyway, I was lying when I said I knew how long this was going to take. It’s about to get dark and I’ve been at this since morning. Time to reach some conclusions:
1) The writing I’ve done over the past couple years has been deeply frustrating to me. Maybe notebooks and ink have nothing to do with it. My thesis is that I suffer—and my readers with me—from their lack.
2) Everyone, in order to publish a single word on Twitter, should first write, by hand, and submit for approval, a work at least 850 pages long. Until then, STFU—you’re off the internet.
3) Like all respectable and mature people, I am blaming my tools for the poor quality of my recent work. I blame the computer.
4) The internet is Etch-A-Sketch. All of it is already disappearing as soon as it’s first put down.
5) I was once at a Christmas party, like thirty years ago, when someone’s new boyfriend came around meeting close friends and extended family for the first time. He asked me, “Hey man, so you’re a writer: does that mean you use a pen or do you type?”
I told him.
He asked me again, twenty minutes later.
And a third time after that.
He was very high.
But, if I may, I’d like to amend my answer now: I typed my very first novel, if you can call it that, partially on my mom’s electric typewriter in Chile. Her office was my bedroom so it was a natural arrangement. The electric typewriter was beautiful. Heavy, insanely powerful and it made the best keyboard sounds I’ve ever heard. If we can roll the whole thing back to the electric typewriter maybe it could still all be ok. That remains the high watermark of writing utensils for me. But, then again, I’ve never typed on a manual typewriter. They scare me. Because of how pretentious they are.
6) When IMDB and Pirate Bay were created, both up and running, the internet truly became its best ever self. Everything since then has made things worse. Now it’s so ugly I wish it would all just go away. I wish Boîte Noire, the best video store I was ever in, opened up a store in East Vancouver. It’s been done before. UBC used to be, that is, UBC was started by McGill. Montreal has been supplying this city with education and culture since Day 1. Boîte Noire made you smarter every time you entered. Amazon Prime’s movie collection actually looks and feels like it was designed by somebody who hates movies and wants already dumb people to get even dumber.
If anyone is still reading this far in, I have a new project going on, and I’ll be sharing details about it soon. If not next time, maybe the next one after that.