The Craft of Writing: California Typewriter and Genetic Studies

Unlike the posts in my blog, my composition for Cold Hard Type is a work in progress, by which I mean that it involves revisions. As I add to material, first as a brainstorm of notes and suggestions, I also go back and propose changes to previously written pages. Thoughts about the next stage of story alter earlier stages, which in turn influence as yet unwritten stages. Thinking of a text this way, one can imagine an organic growth of text moving in every direction.

The documentary, California Typewriter, covers several subjects: an appreciation for history, a balanced skepticism of digital technologies, and a philosophy on creativity and writing. Regarding writing, Tom Hanks lauds the care and authenticity of a typed thank-you letter, and David McCullough, Sam Shepard, John Mayer, and Richard Polt remark on the value of writing as a body of text that retains a history of revision. To put it simply, a writer cannot quite see the finished product while in the midst of writing. This is why sentences and ideas that are removed from the work-in-progress are retained in case they do become valuable to the finished text. Nothing goes in the trash bin. It also is true that previous ideas and drafts may become valuable for a wholly different project down the line.

In literary studies, this is called genetic studies (a somewhat misleading label). Genetic studies in literature involves the comparative analysis of an author’s stages of drafts to the final published text. It also can involve comparing and contrasting variant official versions of a text–such as when a playwright, like Samuel Beckett, continues to alter the text of a play over the course of different performances. (Beckett often directed his own plays, giving him further insight into production.) Finally, there are many cases in which scholars are not sure what constitutes the official text. For example, James Joyce often made revisions just before print and, as one might imagine, the printers could become confused by works like Finnegans Wake, which includes intentional misspellings, portmanteau words, neologisms, and polyglot words. So, one of the questions, from a scholarly perspective, becomes who determines the official text. This debate has no resolution, to the joy of some and the frustration of others.

To get back to the act of writing, any writer can see the value of retaining revisions. Crossed-out words are not deletions. One can return to previous ideas and reinsert them into the text. More than this, revision can take many different forms–yellow sticky-notes, ideas penciled into the margins of typed text, and even doodles. Some authors, like James Joyce, used different color pens to connect motifs for later revision. This is craftsmanship. There is nothing lazy or expedient about it. As cliche as it sounds, writing is a journey, and that journey heads into as many different directions as one can imagine.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. joevc says:

    This is the best description I’ve read of the writing process and why using physical media matters. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Richard P says:

    I drafted most parts of my story by typewriter, then literally cut and pasted (or taped). Now I’m fine-tuning it with a word processor. Finally, of course, it will go back through a typewriter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. mcfeats says:

      It would be interesting to see if any unique revisions occur in the last process. Does reverse engineering writing, going from digital to typewritten, lead to its own sort of revision?


      1. Richard P says:

        I fully expect to fine-tune the text during final typing.


    2. John Cooper says:

      Richard’s typewriter-to-word-processor-to-typewriter process calls to mind the early days of CD audio, when commercial disks would bear labels (most commonly AAD or DDD) to indicate whether analog or digital technology was used during recording, mixing, and mastering. Richard’s process would be ADA. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. mcfeats says:

        I work in the Arts Communications Humanities Design (ACHD) Pathway at my college. I like to call it ADHD.


  3. cloudytype says:

    Nicely put. Also being able to go back and see your own thought process and creative process there on the page can be really useful. It’s good to reaffirm my final draft that way when the doubts kick in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John Cooper says:

      Scrivener, the writerly Mac application, lets you save time-stamped drafts of work in progress that you can retain through the life of the project (and beyond). These can be as granular you like, so you can save multiple drafts of individual sentences if you like. But because proprietary digital formats usually have a limited lifespan, this ability helps only the writer, not historians of literature.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. cloudytype says:

        Exactly, and the information on paper always remains accessible. The software never needs updating


  4. Steve K says:

    I like the idea of a “balanced skepticism of digital technologies”. Version control software is a wonderful innovation I use everyday ss a technical writer. WordPress also provides a history of changes, although I think you lose those revisions once you publish. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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