On Writing in the Dark

There is a particular appeal and romance to writing on a bright screen in a dark room.

I once heard an acclaimed novelist talk about his composition method. He said he wrote for several hours a day, sitting in bed, but to avoid the interference in his thought or internal narration — maybe to avoid the temptation of returning to the sentences he’d already written — he didn’t work on a laptop but using a wireless keyboard linked to a computer on the other side of the room. So that he was not seeing the words on the screen as they were summoned by keystrokes. The sentences would simply scroll on upward or directionlessly away on the page in the mind.

I’m not quite a solid enough touch typist to feel entirely comfortable doing this — I can look away from the screen for a bit, particularly within a moment of “flow,” (I just tried it now for a moment — “particularly” got badly mangled on the first try, and having to find those quotation marks sort of stops me in my tracks), but it doesn’t take long before I feel lost without the orientation of paragraph of the page.

Making a paragraph feels good; it can have a shape-in-hand, a bit like when you’re working dough for something like rolls, and you get to the point where each piece that you pull and make into a ball comes quickly into something like the right heft; proportion is an underrated aspect of our sensory equipment, the not-always-precise but astonishingly real ability to eyeball and hand-weigh something to match a purpose or a previous model.

Of course I don’t like my paragraphs to come out the same size like a tray of dinner rolls; I want them to be like bake-sale brownies, unfairly cut into stingy end-pieces and overly-generous, underbaked center squares you’d just as soon eat, secretly, before wrapping the rest for school. It bugs me, frankly, that the paragraphs in what I’ve written so far are too evenly-sized.

School is where we learn to make paragraphs, where we learn about topic sentences and then examples that elucidate the topic sentence, and then…frankly I can’t remember, precisely. But the point is that nobody, nobody tells you in school that words on the page are also visual things, that a page full of paragraphs can be like a sky with an interesting set of clouds, and that (here’s some sacrilege) sometimes it is not in service of meaning, but in trying to give the eye something pleasing.

Maybe clouds in the sky — which after all never hold their shapes for long — is the wrong metaphor. What about the visual delight of an archipelago in an atlas? The eye flies over the islands as it traverses the map of the writer’s thought. (Getting a little grandiose, but who doesn’t like an archipelago?)

I think about the novelist and wonder what paragraphs are to him? Do they have size and a sense of weight in the same way that they do for a writer who is keeping an eye on the blocks of text on the page? Maybe in revision he spots their masses the flow, works like a sculptor to bring out the shape hidden in the grain of marble? Or maybe he just doesn’t really give a shit about paragraphs? Most of the good writers I’ve worked with as an editor work like hell to make each sentence do precisely what they want it to — to fly off the wrist and make its arc and return with just the right swoop or terrifying plunge.

I began this — sitting here in the dark, writing into the bright waiting screen — thinking about the strange way that heightens my sense of both aloneness and intimacy, in this strange moment when we’re all so much alone and so distantly intimate: a self-seduction into a state of communion with a wholly imaginary reader. Much of what plagues me, as a person who writes, or wants to have written, or hates his own writing, hates and fears the moment of commitment to the page, is feeling that others have found something important to say, something real to move from the world to the Word. I’m grateful to the screen, to the shapes of the paragraphs that it allows me to make here, for giving me, at least for a moment, some relief.

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