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Writing Can Be Dangerous. . . .

November 07, 1990

Your column "Maiming the Message Is Only Half the Danger" (View, Sept. 19) might be subtitled "Cliches, Ill-Thought-Out Assertions, and Timid Fears by a Cowardly Writer."

The whole article is a mass of mush about the alleged ruination of civilized writing caused by word processors. If you were still teaching English you could send one of your Freshman Comp kids to do a library search on the topic and, assuming the kid could do research, you would be presented with a list of more than 250 similar articles, an average of about one per week for the past five years, on the same subject, and all like yours, sans substance and full of vague, dumb fears.

It does no good to point to that English professor's conclusions about whether using a computer or a typewriter produced better composition. Her test was flawed from the beginning because she failed to include a third group of writers: Those who write by hand. By logic, by nature, and by sheer mass of the evidence, the direct link between brain, arm, hand and fingers onto paper produces the best prose and thought. From Plato and Aristotle to St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Goethe, Jane Austen, Dostoevski, Neitzsche, and on and on and on, the really great writers wrote by hand. (The only major one whose works would have been improved by using a word processor is Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is just too long.)

So instead of your muttering over the dangers to the nation's literary prowess of the computer as a writing tool, you'd show more strength of character by renouncing your typewriter and declaring heroically that you are going back to basics and henceforth write with a quill pen. Be a real Luddite.

Forty years ago a fountain pen might have been an acceptable alternative, but now a Waterman costs from $150 up and is just a status symbol, so a quill pen is the only serious choice.

As for your other point, about the potential life-threatening dangers posed by electromagnetism from computer screens, that's piddling stuff for real writers who historically have been placed in jeopardy by all kinds of hazards: stabbing, hanging, beheading, shooting, imprisonment, torture, Siberia, the Gulag and other forms of exile such as that currently suffered by Mr. Salman Rushdie. The worst you have to worry about as a writer is that at some future wine and cheese party there are those Costa Mesa officials who might cut you dead.

Nor can it be demonstrated that one writing machine is significantly safer than another. Use a pencil and you're apt to get lead poisoning, especially if you lick the point; for inspiration. From a pen (whether quill, steel nib or fountain) there's a danger of general poisoning--well-documented in the syndrome known as the "poison pen." They say that people have drowned while writing under water with their ball points. Even a typewriter is not risk-free. I heard of an author whose foot was smashed when she dropped her Underwood on it.

What with one thing and another (and I forgot to mention the possibility of alcoholism), it's surprising that serious writers can buy health and life insurance.

So please stop moaning on about another tired old topic.


San Clemente

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