By Francine Mathews
So it’s August in Colorado, which means it’s monsoon season–the time of year when the arid heat of summer gives way to daily waves of cumulus rising over the Front Range and bearing down in thunderheads above the plains. The temperature falls and the humidity goes up. The plants in my small garden sigh in relief and drop leaves that are crackling and scorched for a second round of hopeful green growth. And I start working again.
I find it hard to write when the sun is shining. My best possible work days are when there’s a blizzard raging and a good fire in the hearth. Second best is rain and fog. At the tail end of summer, thunderstorms will have to do. I’m not actually writing at the moment in any case–I’m about to embark on a revision of my latest novel, and the research for my next. Which brings me to an issue that plagues writers as well as readers: How do I absorb information best? And what’s the most effective way to revise?
I’m talking here about digital vs. print, of course.
One of the major revolutions in publishing I’ve witnessed in the past twenty-five years is the transition to digital manuscripts. When once my editors and I traded a ream of paper, a manuscript that grew shabbier and more precious with each mailing–redlined, corrected, crossed-out and stapled with sudden inspired insertions–we now trade digital files, from beginning to end of the editing process. I submit my manuscript electronically; it is edited that way; returned to me via email; and sent to the printers in digital format. There is no longer foul matter–which, in addition to being a humorous crime novel by Martha Grimes, is also a beloved publishing term for that shabby manuscript, once the actual book appears on a store shelf.
Digital editing means there’s nothing for archives to inherit.
And nothing, in hard copy, for me to revise this August.
Which brings me to the point of this post: I am about to descend to the bowels of my house and the printer I keep in my basement office–nearly as obsolete, absent its scanning function, as the fax service it also provides–to print out my manuscript in draft. Because to truly retain a sense of my story arc, I need to read it on paper. A digital pass–something that might take me only a few hours this Sunday–won’t embed the story in my brain the way turning actual pages does. And that’s true for me with research, as well. When I’m learning about a subject in order to write about it, I have to read actual books, not digital ones. Otherwise, the information slips away like water draining through sand.
I do not retain what I read electronically.
My friend and fellow blogger Jamie Freveletti would figure out exactly why this seems true, find studies that prove it, and offer up statistics that verify my hunch. I love this about Jamie. But today (because I have to get to printing out that manuscript), I’m throwing down this assertion on gut feeling alone. And a bit of chastening experience as a reader-for-entertainment. I download a LOT of books for pleasure on my iPad, my preferred travel companion. In the aftermath of the last presidential election, I sought solace amid chaos by devouring the entire oeuvre of Patricia Wentworth, a Golden Age mystery writer whose works are comfortingly predictable. I probably downloaded over thirty of her books. I scan the titles in my eLibrary now, a few months later, and have no idea what any of those stories were about.
Gone from my head, like a sandcastle at high tide.
So tell me, folks–am I alone in this? Or does your brain need paper, too?