In Defense of the Luddites

I’m not the youngest girl in the room, but in most things I like to think I’m younger than my age. I’m reasonably fit, and my body doesn’t feel like it’s 50 when I ask it to do things like run or bike or ski. I watch a bunch of TV shows that target a demographic I haven’t been part of for over a decade (Crazy Ex Girlfriend! The New Girl!). When I offer to take my son to see Independence Day 2, I won’t just be doing him a favor. I know what People Are Awesome and Bad Lip Reading are, I can sing along to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” and I don’t even cringe at the NSFW versions of my son’s favorite hip hop songs.

I’m very cool. In fact, I’m so cool I’m practically 40.

But when it comes to technology, I’m 80. I have an iPhone, but the only apps I use are Words With Friends and a traffic thingie. I have a computer, but the only features I use are Word, Email, and Google. (The fact that I am using WordPress to create this blog post is a triumph of willpower over ignorance.) This Scrivener thing everyone’s talking about this week? I bought it, tried to trudge through the veerrrrry looooooong tutorial, and decided it would stress me out to manage something that complicated while also trying to write a novel. So I wrote my novel in Word, and I got really good at using searches to jump around in the document, and I had about 47 satellite documents for deleted passages and character studies that orbited my manuscript like little Word doc moons, and it all worked out just fine.

I did sometimes ask myself this, to be honest.

Even more shocking, I wrote entire sections of THE LOST GIRLS in pencil. On paper. Then, when I had a first draft done in Word, I wrote the whole thing out longhand, with a really nice black pen, in a really nice lined notebook, in my neatest handwriting. Yes, you read that right: I wrote the entire thing out by hand. It was the best editing trick ever, because when you set out to write 160,000 words longhand, you’ll only write the ones that really matter. That exercise got the novel down to 125,000 words. Then I retyped it all back in to Word, which was another culling opportunity that got it to 110,000. Can Scrivener do that?? I think not.

My reluctance to race headlong into the technological age may seem extreme, but it isn’t that odd when you consider how I was raised. My mother was an antiques dealer, chairand she and my father filled our house with old things they found languishing in garages and yard sales and painstakingly restored to their former glory. They went “buying” on Saturdays, driving from our home in the D.C. suburbs to the Pennsylvania hill country, and come back with a Victorian chair in six pieces, missing its seat and maybe part of its back, its varnish crusted with age. Anybody else would toss that chair in the landfill, but not them. My father would reassemble it with dowels and glue, hand fashioning replacements for finials broken off long ago. My mother would recreate the seat and the back, using springs and twine and horsehair padding, her fingers pulling with a strength you’d never guess she had in her tiny frame. After she refinished and reupholstered it, it went to her shop, where it would sit, its burnished walnut gleaming, until someone came in and said, “What a magnificent chair!”

There was, literally, no piece of old furniture so broken down that my parents couldn’t fix it, and they saw their work as not just lucrative, but important. They were preserving history. They were honoring the labor of an unknown furniture maker who made a chair with his own two hands, by candlelight, a hundred years before. Compared with the workmanship on a Victorian chair or table, modern furniture was bunk. An insult to carpentry. We didn’t have any of it in our house.

tear catcher
This is a Victorian tear catcher, or lachrymatory. Isn’t it just the most beautiful thing?

In other words, I grew up with a respect for old things, and an admiration for the technology of the past. The way an Edwardian laptop desk opens to reveal its hidden surfaces, or the way the secret compartments in an Empire game table slide sideways at the touch of a thumb, delight me.  As a storyteller, I also love what the treasures of a bygone age reveal about the people who kept them. Things like a silver reliquary designed to catch and hold the tears shed in mourning. Or a locket filled with a beloved’s perfectly braided hair. Sure, there are stories on Vines, and on Twitter, and on Snapchat. I know there are. But the stories that call to me most strongly are the stories that linger like ghosts around the belongings of the dead.

So it’s hard for me to engage with modern technology and social media. Though I am trying, I really am. I know that, as a soon-to-be-published author, I need to be part of the ongoing conversation of the extreme present. It’s been a slow, halting process, but I’m beginning to enjoy some of it, like Goodreads and Twitter, and I truly love the online communities for writers I’ve recently found on Facebook. I might even learn to use Instagram one of these days.

But I will never use Scrivener.

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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 8 Comments

  1. I love everything about this post, too. I love that you wrote the book out longhand. I love that you love storytelling. Someday I’ll let you type on my 1955 Smith Corona Super Silent typewriter. You’ll love that, too.

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