Wednesday, September 28, 2011

99 Writing Problems, but a Bitch Ain’t One

People who don’t know me very well are often surprised to hear that I’m one foul-mouthed . . . woman. Perhaps no one expects a 5’4” female poet-professor to have the talent to make Yosemite Sam blush. Whatever. I’m very proud of my ability to drop F-bombs not just between words, but between syllables. It just feels good. However, it makes teaching hard. One must keep things professional. There are two words I do allow myself to use in class: bullshit and bitch.

Listen: I’m a freaking poet. That means I will use the best word for the job, and if it offends you, go run and complain to whom you will. Bullshit is an excellent word. You can spend half an hour explaining to a student that her answer to a question “lacks authority” or “is verbose” or “illogical,” or you can say “you’re just bullshitting here” and get your point across immediately. I choose the latter approach.

Similarly, feminist politics be damned, nothing conveys my maximum-security-prison approach to writing skills better that the word bitch. You need to make words your bitches. Moreover, and here I finally get to the point of this post, if you’re going to walk around calling yourself a writer, you need to make MS Word and other tools your bitches.

Johnny, why have you chosen to capitalize the first word of all the lines in your poem? That seems like a rather traditional choice. Are you making a statement about traditional poetry here vis-à-vis your contemporary urban subject matter?

Nah. I typed them lower case, and the computer just did that. I dunno why.

Johnny needs to learn how to make that computer his bitch. Usually, especially in contexts such as this blog, when one says “writing skills,” the assumption is one is referring to rhetorical or even grammatical skills. But we must remember the most essential meaning of the verb to write: to put words down on a legible surface via some sort of tool.

I came to computer skills late in life, even for a Generation Xer. I didn’t get my first computer, a Tandy 1000 RL, until I was a junior in college, in the early ‘90s. It didn’t even have a mouse or Windows. It had its own operating system, something called Deskmate. It came without a hard drive (later I installed one myself, thank you very freaking much). To switch between programs, you had to switch floppy disks. Before my Tandy, whom I affectionately called Keifer, I didn’t even have an electric typewriter. I had a mechanical Smith Corona.

Mind you, I love that typewriter (I still have it, somewhere). Something about the physicality of it is really appealing, the tapping noise of the keys and the zip-ping! when you got to the end of the line. I forget where, but somewhere I recently read (heard?) that when you press down on the keys of a typewriter, something pushes back. That’s pretty cool. Am I going to go back to writing on a typewriter? Hell no.

When I first got Keifer, I would still compose longhand, and then use the word processing application basically as a typewriter. This worked well from the point of view of revisionI made many changes as I typed. However, I soon abandoned this double process. Working on a computer was extremely liberatingI could go backwards and forwards, and make innumerable adjustments without confusion or extra work. Even as I write this, I have ideas I want to get to jotted down in my own gibberish above, below, and within paragraphs I have already drafted. True, these could just as easily be scribbled on a sheet of paper, but I couldn’t move them around as quickly.

The only drawback to writing on the computer is how easy it is to lose drafts. If you fiddle with, say, a poem too much, and want to go back to an earlier draft, it has been overwritten, unless you are carefully creating separate documents, or maybe printing drafts as you go along. But this is a minor inconvenience, easily overcome by more careful saving of your work.

The truth is you are lost as a writer in 2011 if you don’t have at least some basic computer skills. I’ve never even spoken to an editor. All of my publishing has been done through email. If you intend to work with small, independent publishers, be ready to format your own manuscript for publicationyou need the ability to make not just MS Word but also Adobe or other PDF software your bitches.

I’m no tekkie. I’m not running to go plunk down my vast adjunct wages for an iPad, for example. I played around with one at the store, and I’m not impressed by the keyboard function. Though it’s responsive, it’s not as responsive as a physical one, and I need to write. I can’t be checking to see if every third keystroke registered. True technological literacy is not about fluttering from one latest gadget to the other, but about knowing how to use the best tools to maximize your productivity, or creativity, as the case may be.

I have ranted before about the need to have good grammar and punctuation skills to be a good writer. That is also a form of literacy. The writer’s skills, however, don’t stop there. In the same way that you’re not going to find an editor willing to plod through your bad grammar, you’re not going to find someone to type for you or figure out how to number your pages for you. Well, you might, but get ready to pay for it with money or sex. There’s always at least one bitch in every situation. Don’t let it be you.


  1. I love the "flicking" video... ;-)

  2. Damn straight! (I, too, use the bullshit clause in class, and don't even get me started about my creative writing students and their poems with capitalized lines.)

  3. Tools! Indeed, that is what they are. I trump your antiquated tool skills by a demi-generation (I remember 8-inch floppy disks) and I still have my typewriters (one electric, one manual)...and, I still have my pens and my notebooks.

    The stone-carving chisel's around here somewhere...

    but I can't tell you how much I agree with a writer's need to learn to use the tools! Yes, you DO need to figure out how to use the style menus in Word or at least how to disable them, and that goes triple for AutoCorrect (snarl, gnashing of teeth).

    These are out physical tools and our rhetorical conventions (also tools). Then there's that first line of Larkin's "This Be the Verse." Tell me any other word would convey the tone and meaning as well.


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