A Nation of Writers

Downtown skyline

“Because of computers, we’re suddenly a nation of writers.” — Patricia T. O’Conner

Computers have done for writing what Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press did for reading. Just as the printing press made it cheaper and easier to print books and disseminate information throughout Europe, the computer has made it cheaper and easier for writers to produce their works and share them with the world.

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Architect Douglas Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria, built in 1929, is an Art Deco masterpiece. (iPhone 5s photo)

This is not to slight typewriters, which got me through college (except on the rare occasions when I had access to my dad’s Apple 2e). Typewriters made writing more efficient, but I remember all too well the downside of typewriters: carbon paper, whiteout, fading ribbons, and sticking keys. Aside from an occasional electronic failure, computers enable writers to not only write and revise speedily but also to publish their work immediately. Press one button, and your writing could be read by someone else within seconds.

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Photo taken with a Panasonic Lumix

As a WordPress blogger, I am invariably startled when I read a post via the Reader, go to “like” it, and then discover that the post was published less than five minutes before I read it. I have to fight a reluctance to comment on a post so recently released that I can sense the author’s lingering breath. Blogging as a subset of writing owes its existence to the omnipresence of computers: anyone who knows how to use a keyboard, connect to the internet, and set up a site can become the author of a blog. Computers are the great egalitarian factor in writing.

Without computers, would so many people be dedicated to writing a novel in the month of November? According to the NaNoWriMo site, in 2013 more than 300,000 participants set themselves the goal of writing a 50,000-word draft of a novel in November. Many writers use computers as tools in getting their novels or other works published, whether by a company or through self-publishing. But for countless writers who don’t entertain thoughts of official publication but who nonetheless have something to say, the computer offers a way to share writing with friends and relations, with acquaintances, and with strangers in different hemispheres gazing at their computers.

Before I had a computer, I wrote in notebooks. As time passed, I wrote more sporadically. It is entirely due to computers that I have experienced a renaissance in my own writing. In 2012, my daughter told me about 750words.com, a site for online writing that was free (at the time). I kept my writing private, and I printed my entries, because I felt that I needed a physical copy of the words I was pouring into virtual Neverland. Thanks to the site’s challenges and badges, I began writing for the first time in 20 years. Are my daily “750 words” worthy of sharing? No, but, after two years of writing privately, I started writing publicly on a blog.

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Built in 1926, Asheville City Hall was also designed by Ellington. (Photo taken with Panasonic Lumix)

I am amazed at how many of us are secretly writers — and grateful that the computer is no snob when it comes to who is a writer and who is not. Am I as careful when I write on a computer as I was with pen and paper? If not, I should exercise more caution: someone is far more likely to stumble onto the words that I type here than in any of the spiral-bound notebooks lurking in an upstairs cabinet. One of the pitfalls of writing on a computer is the very ease of writing — and of sharing. With one click, that hasty or erroneous post is out there. Another drawback to writing online is increased vulnerability to piracy of writing or images. The information divulged in a blog could also give clues to the writer’s financial identity. Writing with computers has its hazards.

But I am thankful for an invention that has streamlined the act of writing, increased the exchange of information, and facilitated the dialogue between writers and readers. O’Conner’s quote refers to a “nation of writers,” but blogging has shown me that a veritable global community of writers exists. Despite this international frenzy of writing, I suspect that the ratio of great writers to everyday, ordinary writers is much the same as it has always been: most of us are not Fitzgeralds or Austens, and maybe not even Samuel Pepys with his famous diary. Still we write, for writing lets us take what is inside our heads and share that with someone else. Writing with computers makes the sharing exponentially greater.

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Ellington’s S & W Cafeteria and Asheville City Hall are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Panasonic Lumix photo)

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Asheville City Hall (Panasonic Lumix photo)


O’Conner’s statement appears on page 1 of Writers INC (Wilmington, MA: Great Source, 2001). Patricia T. O’Conner co-authors the blog Grammarphobia.

Note: One way in which computers are not egalitarian is that it costs far more to buy a computer than it does to buy a pen and paper. Economic inequality is not the topic at hand, however.


writers-quote-wednesday (1)Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting Writer’s Quote Wednesday (and for being patient with those of us who habitually miss posting on Wednesday). Since I’m also behind on Photo 101, I have used pictures from the Architecture assignment throughout this post. All photos were taken in November 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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By way of explanation

The title of this blog is a reference to a standing family joke made by my two brothers. As a teen, I fancied myself to be a poet, and I was prone to gushing about the beauty of the woodland or the perfect purity of the new rose. In 9th grade, I pretentiously composed a collection of poems called “The Winter Wanderer”–an odd choice for an inhabitant of South Arkansas, where we rarely got more than a sprinkling of snow during the winter.

At any rate, my brothers began to say that I was so sappy I could be a tree.  Somehow, this tagline endured. Ironically—and perhaps sadly–I no longer fancy myself to be a poet or even much of a writer. The higher I climbed in academic circles, the lower my self-confidence became. But I do still like trees–in fact, I’d much rather go on a hike in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains near my home than read a poem. Fact. Two summers ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which is named in honor of the writer and poet who died tragically in World War I but left us his famous ode to the many-branched, leafed creations that add so much grace to the landscape (and help us with our breathing). Here is Kilmer‘s famous poem:

Trees

by Joyce Kilmer

My oldest son contemplates the tulip poplars at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

My oldest son contemplates the tulip poplars at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree;

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.