How I Write—2011 (Arnie Sanders)


     Note: Please excuse the length. This is probably the last one of these I ever will write because I am turning over the Writing Program and 221 to Michelle Tokarczyk for our regular three-year rotation for the last time before I retire. It seemed important to record accurately what has happened to my composing process rather than just recycling 2010’s essay. Of course, how would you have known? But I owe you honesty if I hope to expect it from you.


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      I have been writing these HIW essays for 221 for two decades now, and as one would expect, some things about my composing process have stayed the same and others have changed. As a high-school student (1962-66) and as a Lehigh undergraduate (1966-70), I wrote longhand drafts, usually without more than cursory notes, and I typed the results on a Royal office model typewriter you can still see on my English 241 book truck in the Library’s Conservation lab. I concentrated mainly on the flow of my sentences and the point I was trying to make about literature. As I now realize, I was singing prose poems to my teachers, and (weirdly) they tended to like them. This made me a pretty bad writer about history or economics or international relations, which treated evidence and the paper’s overall shape more formally.  That decided my major, and my future.


      I retreated to pen and paper for seven years of wandering while I tried to find a way to live outside the standard economy. I wrote poems, the draft of a novel, short essays, and lots of letters to my girlfriend (now wife), Laura, when she left for Colorado to finish her B.A. and I stayed in Jersey. Then we burned out on the “alternate” life, after too many entry-level jobs which had nothing to do with our interest in literature and art, and she made the plunge, applying to grad school with typed paper essays mailed USPS. You could still do that in 1976. I followed a semester later, dragging the Royal and my journals and a trunk full of books north to Durham, New Hampshire, where I met the first reader who challenged my “prose poems” to be more reader-friendly, Professor Gary Lindberg. He walked me through my first paper, line by line, and showed me where incoherence met the readers’ eyes, and together we patched it back together in the longest conference I had ever had. I was furious, at first, but he tamed me. Laura told me the other grad students called him “The Captain,” and I could see why it would be wise to be commanded by his view of my prose.


      Just as I was about to leave for the Brown doctoral program, with my slightly loopy, home-grown Structuralist, hand-typed MA thesis on orphan protagonists in the C19 Anglo-American novel under my arm, I met “Charon” and the UNH mainframe computer. A friend was writing his dissertation “at the computer lab,” and I had to investigate. You got “sessions” of logon time in which to type, usually sixty minutes or less if the system was crowded, so nobody would risk composing at the keyboard except for minor stylistic changes. A monitor program called “Charon” (ferryman for dead souls on the River Styx) messaged you when you had five minutes left to work, and it counted down in half minute intervals until it kicked you off the system, so you had to save your work promptly. The “terminal” at which we wrote, just a screen and keyboard (no mouse yet), was really just the Royal typewriter with a plug, but with a blinking cursor instead of metal keys hitting the ribbon and paper, and it would format footnotes automatically so that you never had to precalculate how many lines to leave at the bottom of each page (or you would have to retype the whole thing!). I was psyched. The Royal was retired and I began to move my handwriting to print via mainframe computer, but my composing process did not change much.


      When I got to Brown and looked around for the “computer room,” I was directed to a former broom closet that housed a green-screened “terminal” connected to a mainframe in a distant computer lab which was the empire of Andy Van Dam and his gang of electronic text / interactive computer graphics wizards at IRIS. We used their cybernetics lab to make dissertations and articles, not knowing much about the world they were creating where “electric books” would be commonplace and online “reality” a normal experience. Jim Coombs, Allen Renear, and Steven DeRose, authors of a crucial paper on “hypertext markup language” (what lies behind all Web-based text) were my classmates ([i] As I burrowed back into medieval literature, they tunneled into computational linguistics, automated spelling checkers, and the future.


      Brown’s system used “Waterloo Script,” a programming language, to tell the mainframe printers how to format our texts for “output.” To create a paragraph, you did this:


.pp:This is the first line of the paragraph whose format is defined by the “macro” .pp, begun by the period in the left margin and ended by the semicolon that indicated all which followed was ordinary text until the next period in the left margin.  Isn't it clever that they exploited what could only be an error in ordinary English prose to tell the machine "wake up--command coming!"


It was awkward, but no more so than typing, and we could get underscoring like this:


.us;This passage is really important so I’m underscoring it!\ and the backslash turned it off.


     I still have the magnetic tape reel containing the program from which my doctoral dissertation was printed out (also on that book truck), but those tapes have short life spans and it’s probably not readable.


      Near the middle of my doctoral studies, the IBM PC was introduced and Brown students were offered special rates to get them “hooked” on the product, and used to the weird partnership between a mainframe hardware company and a startup software company called “Microsoft,” which had not even sold shares to the public yet. We got our first “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) “word processors,” WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, and stored our files on 5 ¼-inch “floppy disks” that were genuinely “floppy,” so flexible that they routinely were damaged in backpacks or used as bookmarks. But they changed everything for writers. No longer tethered to mainframes, writers could move to follow their spouses and friends to their first real jobs (Laura’s with DataGeneral—once the third largest computer company in the world). Composing on the keyboard for the first time, I wrote my wife a poem that began, “How do I love thee? / Let me consult my database…” Mixing pen-composition with keyboard composition, I knocked out dissertation chapters much more quickly because WYSIWYG word processors allowed one to cut and paste whole pages of text, and to change footnotes to endnotes, because MLA had changed its format style to eliminate footnotes entirely in favor of in-text parenthetical citations and endnotes. (I had to reformat several course papers and whole chapters in a weekend.) That led to my now-standard professional composing process, sketched by pen in rough outlines and hurried journal entries, then typed more or less directly into chapter-sized chunks, revised, edited, revised again and proof-read in print. (One cannot proofread properly on screen.) I wrote on the PC, uploaded the files to the mainframe for storage and printing, and got my doctorate in 1986. 


      An important genre of prose emerged at around that time, because the mainframe users wanted to communicate with each other over something known as BITNET (Because-It’s-Time-Network), cobbled together on top of the Department of Defense and National Security Agency ARPANET war machine, the ancestor of the Internet. We used programs called “Finger” and “MSG” to send brief line-and-a-half messages across the country and then the world ( Now I probably write as many lines of email each day as I write in formal printed prose.


      When I got to Goucher in 1988 for my first tenure-track appointment after two one-year teaching jobs in Rhode Island, I was comfortably settled into the routine: draft notes and sketch outlines in pen; prose draft difficult pieces in pen but increasingly compose drafts at the keyboard; edit with mouse and keyboard; proofread with pen and printed draft; submit final draft in paper. However, at about ten years in (ca. 1998), my composition process for typical “schoolwork” and scholarship shifted dramatically from pen-paper to keyboard-screen, but it was not an absolute shift. I still keep a written journal that fills up with the flotsam and jetsam of my mental life, and usually I begin every important public piece of writing at some point in that journal. The start of this year’s HIW is pretty deeply buried, though, because it’s more a revision of the previous HIWs and cannot completely escape their influence. Whew—I have become my own tradition, constraining my freedom and pre-charging my inspiration. But as I have so often confessed at such a point, I digress from discussing “How I Write.” Let’s look at the mental processes that have governed it all these many years.


      I’m pretty badly ADHD for an associate professor in higher education. Stress brings it out, as does fatigue. I have some classical “dyslexic” symptoms in that I can see letter inversions (the famous d/b/p/q), have trouble discriminating double consonants, and commit the “facilior lectio” reading error more frequently than most (reading an easier word for a similarly shaped harder word). Mainly, I find myself “thrashing” among seemingly unrelated tasks as a means of keeping my mind moving forward on something at all times. The thrashing behavior bears explanation because it’s a computer design term, not skateboarding argot. A computer “thrashes” when it has been given too many instructions and too much data to complete a given set of operations with the memory it currently has free. To make more memory free to accomplish new tasks, the computer discards completed tasks until it can restart an incomplete task, until it once again finds itself with too many instructions and too much data . . . etc. My thrashing usually does not result in actually undoing work, but it certainly makes a mess of my home office (he looks around himself and laughs while wincing and wondering how long this can go on before the house collapses).


      So how do I write in 2011? I am still trying to investigate the obvious. I realized that real discoveries hide behind “boring normal reality,” and re-seeing and re-naming those things makes “news.” I am still trying to quiet my ego-driven need to know things so that I can see what I don’t know, or what I don’t know about what I do know. Zen helped a lot, but I’m as lousy at zazen as I am at staying on topic. Still, even a lousy helmsman needs a star to steer by. Emptiness provides that way-point. Around the edges of the empty mind, ideas crowd forth to be heard and seen. The true Zen master beats them down with a mighty cudgel and goes deeper into nothingness. I pat them on the head and ask them to tell me a story. Lots more reincarnation for this puppy, you bet.


      I also still get those intuitive “snaps” that draw together unexpectedly apposite connections among the evidence. They started happening sometime in grade school, and they have something to do with “gestalt,” the perception of patterns, and I have made it my peculiar corner of the teaching job to try to teach people how to detect them. I am fairly certain that everyone has the experience, but many people find them irritating or shocking or laughable—Freud’s sense of das unheimliche or “the uncanny” plus the “cognitive dissonance” definition of the comedic response. Over time, I have had good success persuading literature and bibliography students to pay close attention to evidence that stimulates their affect, making them angry, irritated, amused, or disgusted. Words on the page that have such power deserve study, but they probably hide something important the readers brings to the page which they tickle, poke, or smack. The attempt to recast such discoveries into orderly prose readers can find interesting occupies most of my scholarly time and effort.


      How do I write? Mechanically, I draft a lot before coming up with anything resembling what will do the job. I follow advice we will get in 221 from Peter Elbow and try to shut out the “Editor” from my writerly mind as I compose. Sooner or later, the Editor reaches over and gabs the pen or keyboard from that Writer loon and starts recomposing the results into something that makes sense, all the while looking for what Writer missed, patterns and pattern-breaking that the eager beagle ran past while following the bunny. Then, after some down-time, the Writer picks up the document(s) again and takes off from the most productive point, not always the end of the draft, and the text accumulates more layers. The Editor has more work to do, which is simultaneously self-satisfying (“What would that fool do without me?”) and irritating (“How am I going to prep for 211’s first day of class if I have to keep massaging this nonsense into coherence?”). The Editor is aware of time, schedules, conflicts, duties. The Writer is Lancelot on quest, Jack the dog in the woods, Jack Aubrey in pursuit of a white sail nicking the Mediterranean horizon, Derek Pearsall sitting down to a manuscript he has never seen before, the amateur Greek scholar, Michael Ventris, playing with Linear B’s characters and looking for a repeating sequence that must mean “olive.” The Editor makes sure the Writer gets paid and stays healthy. The Writer makes sure the Editor stays sane and excited by life. 


      How do I write? Professionally I try to distinguish among three levels of task. The email or note is worth revising, though many do not, but it is not worth suffering and will rarely repay elegant phrasing. In fact, excess words in emails make people mad. This is fast writing with nearly instantaneous revision and quick delivery. The second tier of writing is meant for students and (other) friends who deserve thoughtful, accurate prose, but who need speedy delivery almost as much. That gets to rest between Writer’s effusions and Editor’s reorganizations, but often no more than an hour or a day. The third tier of writing is professional publication. Some of it takes weeks. Some months. Some years. 


      The Kalamazoo paper of 2010 first took shape as a faculty post-sabbatical talk I gave in November 2009, which was written over three or four days spread out over two weeks, but based on thinking and scribbling and imaging I had done at the Garrett Library over the past summer. ( In the three months following the Kzoo talk in May 2010, it morphed into an article that, after three rounds of scrupulous peer-reviewing and fact-checking, finally appeared in print in Journal of the Early Book Society which turned up in my mailbox at the end of July, 2011. That is second tier writing becoming third tier writing, making promises about what I know and suspect, first to an audience of friendly early book history scholars in a small room, and then to the scholars of future Chaucer studies long after I’m dead. The Malory book has been underway since 1984, counting the work I did on the dissertation. It has always been third tier. Nobody else reads Malory like I do, and to persuade them to try my way will be a huge job. 


      If I can persuade you to try third-tier writing in 221, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. At least shoot for second tier, writing to friendly scholars you do not want to mislead and care about enough to think harder about the evidence. To get a big thing right may be impossible in one person’s lifetime, but we do not work alone. Jean de Meun came along forty years after Guillaume de Lorris had died with his allegorical poem, Roman de la rose, about 2/3 finished. Jean finished it over ten years of his life, by around 1280. The resulting poem shook up European culture like nothing they had seen since the Bible and the laws of Justinian. It praised erotic love as the highest achievement of human consciousness, and it coded that praise in an allegorical satire of noble culture that taught later generations of lovers a vocabulary and rules for the game we now play. The literary “querelle de la rose” which its anti-feminism gave life to made the career of Christine de Pizan famous, and gave us one of our first named women writers who made her living by the pen, defending women’s reputation, by the way. Feminist thinking is that at least that old, and anti-feminist thinking is even older. 


      “Thinking long” and “writing long” are the real privileges of the scholarly life. It is paid for by relative poverty compared to the fortunes of those with similar training who work in “bidness,” and protected (at least for now) by tenure and the principle of academic freedom, though “accountability” consultants and politically motivated government officials assail them. There is always time to write long, to think big, to let the unremarked universe into your consciousness and onto your page. Every once in a while this semester, I hope you will get the chance to “think long” in prose. I promise that, if you can “think long” for English 221, you will get to share it with an extremely appreciative audience.



[i]  Jim Coombs was probably my best friend in grad school, and by far the smartest person I ever met. We studied together, sparred about how to know things, and co-edited a book with George Landow and Anne Scott. Jim finished his MS in computational linguistics in 1984 and completed his dissertation on Milton and Wordsworth as prophet-poets, but he walked away from a completed doctorate. Instead, he took a job at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, where they had previously invented the laser printer, the mouse, and graphical user interfaces (windows, icons, etc.). On April 27, 1994, while he was returning a borrowed computer to the lab after an all-nighter, his car left the road and he was killed. Since this is my last “How I Write” essay, I must take a moment to say how much I regret his loss. The deaths of or estrangements from our writing and learning friends can haunt the composing process in strange ways, both contributing insights and stalling it with grief. Do not fear this. Just remember that we’re always using dead people’s language to create new ideas, a form of immortality and a ghost in all our prose.