After six years editing Poetry magazine, 40 years on the New Yorker staff, and 25 published novels, what did Peter DeVries have to say about writing? “I love being a writer,” he said. “What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Literal paperwork was a burden then, even if writing’s figurative paperwork remains. With typewriters, marking italics meant backspacing and typing underscores. One typo meant retyping an entire page. Mid-page interruptions meant tedious page realignments.
Hemingway’s observation once had a literal depth now lacking, “The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.” Re-writing exceeded style’s harsh mandates. Drafting and re-drafting entire sections still composed the creative process then — unless you were Jack Kerouac. Hence, Truman Capote’s comment on learning that Kerouac wrote On the Road in three days: “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.” Rewriting is still just part of the paperwork, but we don’t need to play wastebasketball with crumpled paper anymore.
All these iconic writers lacked photocopy machines and typed with carbon paper. That saved at least one American masterpiece. Thelma Toole ‘s carbon copy of her son’s huge — and 200-times-rejected — manuscript was all she had when Walker Percy agreed to read it. He later said, “My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough [to immediately reject], or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.” Readers kept reading A Confederacy of Dunces all the way to a Pulitzer Prize — a decade after author John Kennedy Toole had taken his own life.
Consider how one writer who worked on the road achieved something we do with a mouse click today. For 50 years Michael Strauss covered sports for the New York Times, then edited sports for the Palm Beach Daily News another 25 years. He filed his last story two weeks before dying at the age of 96 in 2008. Strauss used to carry a half-dozen zipper-cased portable typewriters in his trunk, with another half-dozen of them always in a shop for preventive maintenance. Locking carriages allowed him to stop mid-page, with a story in each device, pack up, and drive to his next event — talk about saving files!
It took months to hear about things that take minutes now, so writers stopped even thinking about finished submissions to work on new manuscripts. In On Writing, Stephen King recounts forgetting completely about some submissions until a check showed up in the mail when he really needed one. Word processors, spell check, and auto-correct require more — not less — attentive proofreading. After one press of “Enter”, one typo can publicize an error to the whole world. With everything now ending up online someday, the new paperwork of writing includes SEO awareness even when not requested. It means nuisance tasks like inserting hyperlinks and header tags.
The figurative paperwork remains in the modern creative process. Douglas Adams’ maxim, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by,” served him best after success allowed him to set his own. By contrast, Mark Twain’s advice, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be,” still holds damn solid today. But the note that Oliver Stone posts at his damn desk still applies as much as ever: “Writing = Ass in Chair.” Technology does not erase the “paperwork” of writing. It just puts it in quotes.
Peter John S is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.