Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Archaeology of Writing


      You were sitting at your desk amid a clash of cultures and technology, a telephone in your hand.  On the line is the publisher of a small, energetic publisher of niche fiction in massmarket paperback original format.  The handwriting is already on the wall.  You know that for a fact.  You are by slow degrees educating yourself to the changes in technology.  Before you is a large screen, twenty-three inches at the diagonal, a generous gift from a client.  The handwriting is on that as well as on the wall.

You have only moments before concluded a price for editing on a dollars-per-page basis, and, knowing of her concern for the timing involved, have asked the publisher when you can expect the first manuscript.

“Right away,” she tells you.

As it so happens, that twenty-three inch screen is filled with the mail program.  An additional as it so happens is the chime you hear announcing the arrival of electronic mail.  The publisher hears the chime over the phone, which, by the way is not only a landline phone, it is a non-wireless; it is connected to the outlet with a wire.

“Ah,” the publisher says.  “There.  I see you have it already.”

A few moments later, you’ve ended the conversation, then clicked on the manuscript to open it.  “Well, now,” you told yourself.  “You appear to be on the cusp of learning to edit electronically.”

Until that moment, you’d edited hundreds of paper manuscripts.  Paper is still your preference, but now even that standard is in flux.  You cannot recall the last time you edited a book-length manuscript from a paper format.  There is, in fact, one telephone connected to a wall outlet, but the same outlet has a line splitter, offering you a wireless landline.  You cannot recall the last time you used the phone connected to the wall outlet by wire; your only reason for keeping such a dinosaur is in case the electricity goes out for any reason, making your wireless useless.  But never mind; you have an iPhone model 4S, which has barely been overcome by a newer model.

You have even gone to the extreme of reading books in digital form, recognizing and accepting not merely their inevitability but rather their presence.  EBooks, electronic books, are as “here” as the Internet is “here.”  The future is here; although it won’t be for long because of the way technology evolves, step by steady step.

Somewhere among your shelves are journals and daybooks, filled with your handwritten observations before you were aware of such a word as blog, which you understand to have come from the marriage of web log.  On your desk in front of you when you were engaged in that fateful conversation with the publisher who sent you what became your first electronic manuscript book project, there was a pencil sharpener in the form of a typewriter.  You still have the device; it is on the desk behind you, a relic of its own by virtue of it being as compressed in its way as the words web and log were compressed to form a new word.

The pencil sharpener was a birthday gift from students at least thirty years ago.  You can imagine your nieces or friends, going through your things after you have moved beyond the need for them or the ability to use them.  “What’s this?”  “A pencil sharpener.”  “Why would anyone want a sharp pencil?”  O tempore, o mores; you particularly wanted a sharp pencil when a ten-year-old girl named Rena, whose last name in Italian translates to walks-while-singing, left her desk to visit the wall-mounted pencil sharpener.  Such were the emerging technologies of puberty changing your usage patterns even then.

In many ways, you are as eager to see where the digital age will take you as you’d been to see where puberty would take you, and then what?  You do not by any means begrudge the eBook or the iPad or the Kindle Fire.  Your iPhone means more to you because of the access to music than its ability to tell someone you might be a few minutes late, or even your potential for being able to get verbal driving instructions to places you should know but may not.

When the time comes, some considerable time from now. In probability, one of your nieces might say to the other, “Did you know he kept a blog?”  And in greater probability, the answer will be, “I’m not surprised.”  They may well have come upon your pre-blog handwritten observations, written with the fountain pens they will surely have discovered in a cedar-lined cigar box.  This will go some distance toward explaining the bottles of brown ink, next to the pencil sharpener.

“What do you think he blogged about?”  One of the nieces will ask this.

“Probably stuff about what he wrote.”

“Makes sense.  Do you think he had any secrets?”

“Him?”

“Well, you know.”

At which point they will be faced with the same problems and questions writers dead and alive have faced since the beginning of written language and shared by readers for the same length of time.

Were the secrets interesting enough to read through to discovery?


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