Precious resource: Technology & writing, part 1

I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to be a writer in the ancient world. Papyrus doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

papyrus was a precious resource for ancient writersThat’s a joke, of course; it grows in swamps. But my point is that you couldn’t just toddle over to the Staples in downtown Alexandria and pick up a nicely packaged ream of it. Someone had to make it, sheet by sheet. Here’s an illustrated guide for those of you who’d like to try. It takes weeks, and no small amount of elbow grease.

Papyrus scrolls were a precious resource. Writers must have thought long and hard before dipping their styluses into their ink—which someone also had to make, crushing up carbon and mixing it with water and gum—and setting their words down for readers.

Paper: precious resource or creative roadblock?

I used to collect blank books—beautifully bound notebooks. A writer always needs a journal handy, right, in case inspiration strikes. But I found that the more beautiful a notebook was, the less I wanted to “mess it up” with my writing.

Ridiculous, right?

The truth is, I didn’t start writing seriously until the company where I was working installed a Macintosh computer on my desk, back in the penultimate decade of the 20th century.

Fun fact: Two nights later I dreamed that they were about to remove the computer. I woke up screaming Nooooo! That’s how fast you become a Mac person for life, folks.

Anyway, I quickly discovered the advantage of writing on a computer: No one sees your drafts. Those rumpled legal pads with sections angrily crossed out? Gone. The sea of half-typed sheets crumpled in your wastebasket (oh, who am I kidding) on the floor around your chair? You don’t have to hide them because they never exist. Only the computer knows about your many false starts and failures. And in those pre-NSA days, it wasn’t telling.

So I have a soft spot for technology in my writer’s heart. It helped me break through a creative roadblock and start writing regularly. And shortly after that, I started writing for a living, which has been wonderful.

But as a reader, sometimes I miss the old days when paper was a precious resource. More on that tomorrow.

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