To write the Great American Novel you’ve got to slip out of bed before the dawn catches up, before the inner critic snuffs you out, before the day job begins. You’ve got to get up and sit at your desk and turn on the computer. If you’re lucky, you’ll have one hour of uninterrupted writing time—one thousand words, easy. It’s you, the computer, and a vast subconscious ready to spill forth.
That’s the ideal.
Here’s the reality.
I stagger out of bed at six a.m. and fire up the computer. The hard drive makes clicking noises like toenails on a hardwood floor, and out pops a message on the screen:
Your computer may be at risk.
Meaning it might not be.
I waste precious minutes speculating on whether to ignore the message. Will I lose the fifty million drafts of The Great American Novel? I decide not to chance it.
I click on the message box. The computer whisks me off to McAfee Land and asks for my credit card. I grumble and get up and fumble through my purse and flip through my wallet and thumb the card from its plastic sleeve and squint at the number and type it in. I click a few more boxes, the hard drive makes digesting sounds and…hold on, did it just ask for my credit card?
Your subscription has expired.
It tells me to wait. This could take awhile. I shrug and open the latest draft of The Great American Novel and the computer powers down and The Great American Novel disappears. Aiiiiyyyy!!! The computer powers up, makes more toenail sounds, and tells me it will take five hours to install…
What happened to five?
…and ten seconds…
…three minutes and five seconds… four minutes and twenty seconds...two minutes and fifteen seconds…
I wonder who’s controlling it. I wonder if this is what happens during REM sleep….all those back and forth eye movements; are we being controlled by some outside force? Does it power us down, make some adjustments and power us back up in the morning?
Please wait while we download your files.
THIS IS WHY I CAN’T FINISH MY NOVEL!
Once upon a time, if you were a Great American Novelist, you used a manual typewriter. You stuck a blank sheet of paper behind the platen and rolled the paper up behind the ribbon and hunched forward and began typing. At the end of the line you shifted the carriage return lever and continued typing. At the end of the page you slotted up another sheet and off you went. The paper didn’t disappear and reappear. You didn’t need a printer or a hard drive or a backup disc to remember what you’d written. It was you, the paper and the typewriter.
Before that, you wrote by hand. No keys to punch, no paper to reload, no electrical plugs that needed outlets or wireless connections that needed passwords. No booting up or rebooting or getting the boot. It was you, your quill pen, the parchment and the candlelight.
Before that, you talked. You hunkered down around the campfire shoulder to shoulder and told your story. Nobody interrupted and demanded your credit card. It was you, your tribe, and the lights from a billion stars.
And nothing prevented you from finishing your story.