The gun to the writer’s head

From Facebook discussion on 4/28 triggered by Heidi Harley’s report from the world of apps:

I just learned about this from Twitter and am mesmerized. Just the thought makes me sweat, but I kind of want to try and see how much prose I can generate in a fixed time period. Basically the way it works is you set a timer and start writing, and if you stop for any longer than 5 seconds before the end of your timer, it deletes all your words.

From Wikipedia:

The Most Dangerous Writing App is a web application for free writing that combats writer’s block by deleting all progress if the user stops typing for five seconds. It is targeted at creative writers who want to write first drafts without worrying about editing or formatting.

The dementia diary, My response (among many others’):

What an appalling idea. But then writer’s block has never been a problem for me. (It was for my man Jacques. I suspect that if he’d been obliged to use software like this, he’d get a little way in, it would all get deleted, and he’d decide that God didn’t mean for him to write, just give up.)

J’s writer’s block — originally, I think, a form of destructive perfectionism, but eventually it took on a life of its own, like that shapeless evil thing that lives under the stairs — was painful to watch, and wreaked real damage in his life. When his dementia set in, things got even worse.

An excellent therapist suggested an exercise, very frequently used in the early stages of dementias in an attempt to slow the unfolding of the condition by having patients figuratively “exercise their minds”: keep a diary of what’s happening in your life; write in it for, oh, 15 minutes a day. And here’s a diary book for you to use (a small, unthreatening notebook, not something with sprawling empty pages you have to fill).

For J, it was a form of torture that he hadn’t imagined possible. For four days, he wrote a bit in the diary, starting a new page each day, descending to strangled weeping after a few minutes, and then he gave up for that hellish day.

He guarded the diary from me ferociously, not that I ever asked to see it. I assume he didn’t want me to see his failures, whatever they were; after all, I was the most important person in his life and the person whose love enfolded him and gave him strength; what if I saw what he was, oh god, oh god, really like?

After 12 years of descent into nothingness, he finally withered away and died, in 2003. When I cleared out his things (some, of course, I still keep with me, precious shards of him), I found the diary, in a special “secret compartment” in his desk. The four pages were stained with his tears. Each of the four entries was a shaky agonized line or two saying that he wasn’t able to write in the diary.(“I don’t know how to do this”). Then, of course, I wept too, as I weep now, almost twenty years later, while I write this for you. (For me, writing is complicatedly effortful, but immensely rewarding — on good days, a genuine source of joy. Which is a damn good thing, because it’s a major component of my profession and my art.)

I burned the fucking diary.

In a metal wastebasket. I doused the hateful motherfucker with lighter fluid and set fire to it. Put the ashes, and the wastebasket too, in the trash. (I did not go on to burn Valhalla to the ground, or to the Rhine, or whatever. I was possessed with second-hand pain and righteous fury, not actually crazy.)

And I note that one of the advantages of living alone, as I have done since 1998, is that you can just go and do things like that. Nobody sees, nobody cares.

Andrew and the craft of writing. Meanwhile, back on Facebook, Andrew Carnie introduced the theme of the craft of writing, as it applies to The Most Dangerous Writing App.

This would be a disaster given that I typically write by constantly word-smithing as I go: Reading, rephrasing, reading, writing, Rephrasing etc.

I then embroidered on Andrew’s theme. In revised edited form for this blog (hey, I’m a writer):

AZ > AC: Yes, and there are a number of important writerly experiences in there.

You discover partway through that you know things you didn’t know you knew, and they have to somehow get worked into the text.

Or you formulate something in a way that strikes even you as marvelous and surprising — it came down in a cloud from the sky! — but now has to be properly set up and developed in the text.

Or you get a formulation that, ouch, is not quite marvelous, so needs pondering.

Or, all the time, every whipstitch, you discover that there’s something you don’t know but really need to — so you have to go away and find out.

Meanwhile, writing comes in fits and starts. Sometimes one of those fits produces pages of text smoothly emerging somehow from inside you. You look at it and say, not bad — in, oh, 20 revisions it will be splendid — and you get down to all that fiddly reworking. BUT anyway YOU CAN’T TELL when you’re going to get one of those fits, AND YOU CAN’T MAKE IT HAPPEN..

Forced to produce text, I’d probably just dredge up quotes: Tale of Two Cities (far far better thing), Molly Bloom (yes yes), Oscar Wilde (in a handbag?), Candide (I am easily assimilated), Edward Lear’s nonsense verse (they went to sea in a sieve), stuff from Broadway shows (sing out, Louise!) and Gilbert & Sullivan (for he is an Englishman), DGO in German (die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht, everybody knows der Haifisch), whatever. I could surely outlast any fucking software.

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