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Peter Winkler

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Write an Entire Book With a Chopstick? Sure, Why Not

Posted: 01/27/2012 11:03 am

One night in 1965, I went to bed, apparently fine. The next morning, when I awoke, I was unable to walk. My left leg, from hip to toe, hurt agonizingly with the slightest movement or touch. I was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, underwent surgery, and began using crutches. My parents impressed upon me the necessity of excelling at schoolwork, because, as they told me, "You can't get a job digging ditches anymore." The other formative statement I recall hearing was, "You need to make something of yourself."

Writing has always come easily to me. At UCLA, I once harbored vague ambitions to write a definitive history of science fiction film, and considered attending film school. Unable to justify to myself or explain to my parents the frivolousness of film school, which offered no guarantee of employment, I made what I thought was the sensible, pragmatic decision, and entered law school, the last refuge for directionless liberal arts graduates. That ended with a nervous breakdown and depression.

By 1985, the ravages of arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and Sjogren's Syndrome left me largely housebound and at a loss at how to fulfill my parents exhortations to make something of myself. The vague aspirations of writing reasserted themselves, now as a lifesaver within reach of someone going under for the last time.

Until then, I always wrote a first draft of any piece of writing in longhand on a legal pad, corrected and revised it in the margins, and merged everything into a final draft as I typed it on a Smith Corona electric typewriter that featured a primitive precursor to word processing. Swappable ribbon cartridges allowed one to overwrite mistakes by ejecting the black ribbon, overwriting the mistake with the white ribbon, and typing in the correct text with the black ribbon. With the progression of my arthritis, and a fused, deformed spine, sitting in front of that typewriter was now out.

I finally discovered my salvation. My first computer, an Epson PX-8 Geneva, was a five-pound laptop that may seem primitive by today's standards-a non-backlit LCD screen that displayed eight lines of text at a time, 64K(!) of memory-but it was hot stuff back then and exactly what I needed. I could sit in bed and type for hours with no penalty of physical fatigue, and the mutability of the text afforded by word processing software made revision effortless.

Distracted by the siren song of the online world, I spent far too much time on computer bulletin boards (BBSs, as they were called), but sold the first article I wrote (about a BBS devoted to the very laptop I used) to a computer magazine for laptop and portable computer users in June 1988. I earned $50, but shared the same elation all writers experience when they make their first sale.

It wasn't unalloyed luck after that, but I kept on punchin', as Jett Rink (James Dean) says in Giant. As soon as I sold that article, I started thinking books. I was like the guy who gets elected dog catcher and decides he's going to run for president. I wrote my first book proposal in 1992. It didn't sell.

I chased the wild goose of book publication with sporadic bouts of furious effort for the next 18 years, fighting disease-induced fatigue, inertia, and the discouragement of rejection, intermittently rewarded with publication in various periodicals and websites, until my agent got me a deal in June 2010 with Barricade Books to write Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel.

During those 18 years, computers continually improved, except for their keyboards. The inclusion of pointing devices on laptops pushed the keyboard several inches above the trackpad, evading the reach of my hands, thanks to my elbows, which were fixed at a 45 degree angle, unable to be extended. I was at an impasse.

I tried speech-to-text software, but was unable to put the headset, with the required mic, on and off my head. I tried using pencils and other instruments to reach the keys and finally found my solution -- a red plastic chopstick, about ten inches long. I hold it between the thumb and index finger of my right hand, and punch out the text, one keystroke at a time. I was always a two-finger typist, even in the days when I sat before a typewriter. I was now a one-chopstick typist.

It slowed but didn't alter my writing process, which has remained unchanged since I began using computers. I attack any writing project by getting that all important first sentence onto the page without hesitation, however imperfect it may be. The paragraphs grow organically through a process of accretion. I use a spell checker not just to check spelling, but to clean up typos. Then I go back and revise heavily. I print out a proofing copy of my work, and mark it up for further revision with a felt-tip marker. I then incorporate those changes into the document on my computer.

As John Naughton recently observed in the Guardian, "My hunch is that using a word processor makes writing more like sculpting in clay. Because it's so easy to revise, one begins by hacking out a rough draft which is then iteratively reshaped - cutting bits out here, adding bits there, gradually licking the thing into some kind of shape."

I've been asked why I remain determined to write, despite setbacks and rejection, if writing is so difficult for me. "You need to make something of yourself" long ago became the internalized force that drives me.

"It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist," Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote. While the restrictions imposed by my damaged body demand more physical effort than a able-bodied writer might need to write, all writing requires effort. So I just keep on punchin'.