We can all write nowadays, even 140 characters at a time

One of oldest chestnuts in The Mythological Book of Frequently Asked Questions About Being An Author disappeared around the turn of the Millennium, and almost nobody noticed. I noticed its demise–though only very slowly–because it had always been one of my favourite questions and I loved answering it because there were so many ways to do so, depending upon who was asking and how genuinely interested I thought they were in eliciting a response.

I called it the blank page trauma syndrome, because most people were genuinely fascinated by the notion of a career that involved having to sit down every day to face a blank page or screen, knowing that you had to fill it up time after time, all day every day, with original, relevant and pertinent words. And the question they all asked was, “How do you do that?”

The simplest answer was, “It’s my job, and it’s not that difficult, once you learn the disciplines.” Then, to illustrate those disciplines, I would explain that John Galsworthy wrote his enormously successful series of novels, The Forsyte Saga, during the first two decades of the 20th Century, by the simple but disciplined process of writing three foolscap pages every day, by hand. By the end of each year he had written approximately 1000 manuscript pages, with each page containing anywhere from 200 to 250 words. That would translate, after editing and typesetting, into a 650- to 700-page novel.

The hugeness of Galsworthy’s literary output—on three pages a day—was staggering to his post-Victorian contemporaries, who had emerged from Grade school with ink stained fingers from agonizing over a weekly English composition of 200 words. To them it was inconceivable that anyone would subject himself to such a demanding regimen for pleasure, and that belief lasted and persisted until relatively recently.

The question involved, though, has been asked in one form or another since the first professional writers started splitting the ends of turkey quills and mixing lampblack with different liquids to generate ink.

Whether you write with primitive inks or computer technology, though, the medium of reproduction is unimportant beside the need to create the words that other people will read. And so before the emergence of the personal computer and the smart phone, the most common question you were asked as a writer was about how you dealt with that living nightmare of having to come up with fresh, different and consistently meaningful words every day.

Nobody asks that question nowadays. I haven’t been asked it in years and I can’t even remember anyone bringing the topic up, since about the mid-1990s. And so, being the kind of contrary creature I am, I’ve been thinking about what that represents in terms of societal change, and it’s now my turn to be fascinated by the question, albeit from a different perspective.

The truth is that the mystique that once surrounded writing has vanished. Prior to the advent of email in the early ‘90s and the subsequent explosion of the Social Media phenomenon, virtually no one wrote casually. Letter writing was almost an art form back then, involving paper pages, envelopes and stamps, and real, hand-held pens, and people who wrote letters with any kind of regularity thought of themselves as correspondents. Most of them crafted their letters with great pride, taking enormous pleasure in their penmanship and in the skills of generating long, hand written, delightfully structured epistles.

Not so today. Everybody, literate or not, “writes” today, every day, Blogging and Tweeting and rambling on Facebook and other, similar sites, and penmanship today boasts the same currency and fashionable chic as crinoline dresses, beaver hats, buttoned boots and whalebone stays.

No one needs to be awed or intimidated by the prospect of having to write hundreds of words a day now—and programs like Twitter won’t even let you try, because they limit your input/output to 140 characters per tweet, thereby relieving everyone of the fear of being seen to be stuck for words… And let’s be clear about that: it’s 140 characters including spaces and punctuation, not 140 words.

You don’t need to know how to punctuate, either, in order to tweet. Or even, Heaven forbid, how to spell. You just type, with two thumbs or perhaps one or two fingers, and your built-in spelling checker looks after your “personal stylistic idiosyncrasies,” disguising, or at least dissembling, your inadequacies and linguistic peccadilloes.

The downside of that, unfortunately, is that your spelling checker recognizes real words, and accepts them, but it can’t deal with idiom or usage. If the words you type are in the dictionary, it’ll accept them. And that can, and sadly does, lead to lovely little situational ditties like this: “I have a spelling checker,/ It came with my PC/ And it picks out, for my revue/ Miss steaks I can knot sea./ I rote this poem with it/ And I’m sure your pleased to no/ Its letter perfect in it’s weigh/ —My Spell Cheque tolled me sew…”