Writing… IN SPACE!

What comes to mind when you think about the words writing and space? Maybe you think of the place where you typically write, be it an office, a kitchen table, a coffee shop, or even during an hour-long commute on public transit. Maybe you think of that 100,000-word Q/Picard slash fic you wrote but never posted.

Neither of those things is what I’m going to be talking about today (sorry, shippers). Rather, I’m talking about how writing itself is inherently spatial, and what that means for writing practices.

Image of the W40 nebula from the GPA Photo Archive. It kind of looks like a red butterfly in space.
Space–the final writing frontier??

Language Made Material

In her 1996 book Writing Technologies, researcher Christina Haas wrote that “…writing is language made material” (p. 3). Material in this context just means that it takes up space in the world. If you write something down, it exists in the world in a concrete way, even if you write it on a screen. The words I’m writing now in this draft in Microsoft word currently take up a roughly 2-inch by 5-inch space on my laptop screen. To put it in slightly fancier terms, researchers Thierry Olive and Jean-Paul Passerault called this material existence a visuo-spatial trace.

The trace is different on a laptop screen than it is on other surfaces. Northanger Abbey, my favorite Jane Austen novel, looks different on my Kindle app than it does on my paperback copy. Hell, it looks different on my Kindle app depending on whether I’m using the iPad app or my Android phone app, and my Oxford University Press World Classics paperback edition looks different from the version printed in one of those giant Barnes and Noble Complete Works Of editions. The way the text takes up space in the world differs according to its material components.

Image of paperback copy of Northanger Abbey and iPad Kindle copy of Northanger Abbey, open to the same chapter. The text is displayed differently on each interface.
Jane Austen, Queen of Snark in print or on screen!

2D vs. 3D Writing

There are a number of differences between reading and writing on a screen and reading and writing on paper. The one that interests me the most is the dimensionality of screens vs. paper. Screens present two dimensions—vertical and horizontal—and require scrolling if you surpass whatever the limits of those two dimensions are. On the other hand, printed works essentially exist in three dimensions, not because paper is especially t h i c c, but because it stacks rather than scrolls. Here’s an illustration from a job talk I gave back in 2018.

Diagram illustrating 2d vs 3d texts: an illustration of a desktop monitor is marked with a horizontal and vertical arrow illustrating 2d space, while an illustration of a stack of papers is marked with a horizontal, vertical, and lateral arrow, illustrating 3d space.
2D vs 3D Texts

Now, I’m not here to tell you all about how screens are ruining reading and writing practices and gripe about the kids these days and to holler at you to get off my lawn. Absolutely not.

First of all, relationships between writing and technologies are more complex than that. And second of all, complaining about the kids these days with their newfangled reading and writing tech is about as old as writing is. If you think you’re mad about new writing tech, go read some Plato. In the Gorgias, he writes his mentor Socrates as the OG Chronicle of Higher Ed columnist here to complain about new writing tech—except he’s complaining about writing itself.

ANYWAY. [Steps down from soap box.] Why should you care? Well, because while technology isn’t all-powerful, it’s not transparent either. It can and does impact writing practices.

Text Sense and 3D Writing Spaces

Take for example a study from Writing Technology. In the study—which was conducted before 1996, mind you—writers were asked about the tools they used for their writing, and many of them reported that they did all of their writing on computers. Except, when it came time to review and revise their manuscripts, many of these same writers printed out their manuscripts for this stage of the writing process.

When asked about why they printed out their manuscripts to revise, many of them reported having a better “sense of the text,” or text sense, as Christina Haas came to call it, with the printed version. Haas explains that “text sense is a mental representation of the structure and meaning of a writer’s own text,” (p. 118). In a way, the writers found that they could know their own writing better when it was printed in three dimensions rather than when they were scrolling through it in two.

Now, this study was discussed in a book published in 1996, which means that the study itself was likely conducted in the late 80s or early 90s. Many writing technologies look vastly different now than they did then. But—I, too, like these writers, often print out drafts of my writing when it comes time to revise, especially writing that is longer or that deals with more abstract concepts. When I’m writing longer fiction, I’ll sometimes print out to revise; when I’m writing academic articles, I always print out to revise. Even in 2019.

Get Off My Lawn! Just Kidding

Again, I’m not here to yell at the kids for using their mobile phones to read and write. I think it’s pretty great, actually. I’m just trying to spread the good word about what writing researchers know about how writing works. For one, I just think it’s cool stuff. And for two, the more you know about what you do, the more tools you have to try different things when you get stuck.

So what are your processes like? Do you write everything on the computer? …Do you? Do you write first drafts by hand? Did you write that 100,000-word Q/Picard fic on your phone? Let me know in the comments!

Sources and Resources

Interested in this topic? Check out the pieces I cited in the post!

Two Myths of Technology that May Be Holding Back Your Writing

Close up of old Remington typewriter with circle-shaped keys.

What’s your favorite mythological creature? Unicorns are really popular right now, but dragons are a classic. Harry Potter fans might say hippogriffs or crumple-horned snorkacks.

Me? My favorite mythological creature is technology.

I’m kidding, of course, but the myths surrounding technology are almost as big and pervasive as the myths surrounding unicorns and chimeras and dragons—maybe even bigger. These myths pervade everyday discourse around technology, and especially around communication technologies. They may even seep into our beliefs about writing technologies. They may seem harmless, but if we cling too tightly to these myths, they may impact our writing practices in ways that aren’t so great.

And that’s why I’m here to BUST THOSE MYTHS because bustin’ makes me feel good.

Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd getting out of the ghost buster-mobile. Text on image reads, "Get in loser, we're going busting."
Image source:Know Your Meme

Both of these myths are discussed in the 1996 book by Christina Haas called Writing Technology. Pick it up for a much more detailed busting of these myths—including actual empirical research! But for now, without further ado, let’s bust some myths!

Myth #1: Technology is transparent.

The myth that technology is transparent may not seem pervasive in a culture that just loves to whine about how the kids can’t write because they’re always twittering on their beep-boopers, using textspeak and emojis in their school paper.

And yet, this myth does still operate in wider cultural beliefs about technology today. This myth says that it doesn’t really matter whether I use a notebook and pen or a computer to write—it won’t really impact my writing practice that much, except maybe to make my writing faster and more efficient.

But anyone who’s tried to have a complex conversation on Twitter knows that writing technologies are not transparent—that they do, in fact, impact writing practices. Different writers have approached Twitter’s 280-character limit in different ways, but no matter the workaround, the limits of the platform do impact how writers work. And I want to say here that I’m not saying that you can’t have complex conversations or talk about complicated subjects on Twitter; I’m saying that it impacts both how you say what you say and the way in which you go about saying it.

Myth #2: Technology is all-powerful.

The other major myth surrounding technology may seem at first blush to be the polar opposite of myth number one, but in fact it’s deeply linked to it. Any time you’ve heard a technology called revolutionary, or heard someone say (or said yourself) that such-and-such a technology is going to drastically change how we do X, you’re operating under this myth.

Christina Haas explains the myth’s relationship to writing and literacy in this way: “New technologies for literacy are such a powerful force that simply introducing them to writers will change literary acts in the most profound of ways. […] This myth imbues computer technology with a number of qualities, among them that computers are unique and that they are active, independent agents of change,” (p. 35).

Haas wasn’t saying that technology doesn’t have impacts on the ways we write; in fact, her whole book was about some ways in which writing technologies do impact the ways we write. But the big issue with this myth is that it assigns too much agency to the technology itself—it sees the technology as deterministic, rather than as something created by people and therefore imbued with cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Even the example used in the first myth—that my computer is such a powerful piece of writing technology that it will increase the speed with which I produce writing—is bound up in attitudes about speed, production, and efficiency. It assumes those are good things when it comes to writing—that I want to write faster, that I want to write more; that these are inherently good things, and that there is no downside to producing more writing faster.

If you’re struggling to see how producing more writing faster could be a bad thing, that’s because those are deeply, deeply embedded cultural values. But writing more and faster may not actually be the best thing. Sometimes creative endeavors take time, and that’s that. Trying to rush through them with faster, “more efficient” tech may not actually make for better writing.

These myths are everywhere.

These myths about technology—specifically as they are applied to writing—are everywhere in our culture! I can think of several examples, mostly surrounding hopes or fears for student writing, but I want to hear from you. What examples of these myths have you seen? Have you perhaps said yourself? Let me know in the comments below!

Sources and Resources

For more great myth bustin’, check out Writing Technology by Christina Haas.

Featured image by Marco Verch. Used under the Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License.

Fanfic Updated: The Wrackspurt Infestation

Howdy, folks! Just a quick update to announce I’ve added a NEW CHAPTER to The Wrackspurt Infestation, my ongoing fanfic about Ginny Weasley’s life following her misadventure in the Chamber of Secrets. Chapter Five is now up on Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net. Stay tuned, though, because there will be eleven chapters total!

If you’re enjoying the story, be sure to let me know in the comments here or on AO3 or FF! Happy reading!

Six Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me about Combatting Writer’s Block

Dungeons and Dragons. Given a current cultural context that has seen D&D references in shows like Stranger Things and Community, and an a recent explosion of actual-play podcast and shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone[1], Dungeons and Dragons hardly needs an introduction.

As a TTRPG (tabletop role playing game), it has offered players countless hours of entertainment, but it’s also served as inspiration for sci-fi and fantasy writers since its introduction in 1974. The first (unauthorized) novel inspired by D&D was written by Andre Norton and published in 1978, with authorized novels (currently numbering in the hundreds, and that’s not including novellas, novelettes, and short fiction) first seeing publication in the 1980s. Talk about your points of inspiration!

But what about when you’re stuck? When those moments of inspiration just don’t come? Here are six things Dungeons and Dragons taught me about combatting writer’s block. Let’s roll initiative.

Close up of three hardbound 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons books stacked atop each other: the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Player's Handbook.
I cast Enhance (writing) Ability.

Leveling up happens through regular, consistent play.

One of the fun parts of Dungeons & Dragons—or really, any game with leveling mechanics—is leveling up. Leveling up means that certain challenges become easier; a level one party facing a young green dragon is likely going to get burnt to a crisp, but a party at level ten? Piece of cake!

It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. The Behemoth Blank Page doesn’t have hit points and a challenge rating. Writer’s block is a sly, ever-changing creature whose face may be different each time we see it. But, as with D&D, the more regularly you can manage to at least sit down at the (writing) table, the more strategies you have for defeating it.

Close up of a black pen resting atop a blank page of a spiral bound notebook.
The thing all writers fear most… the Behemoth Blank Page!

But sometimes you roll with disadvantage.

One of the core mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons is dice rolls. Players describe a thing they want their characters to do to their Dungeon Master (DM), and the DM tells them what kind of a roll to make to see whether that thing happens. If the player rolls at or above a particular number, then the thing happens! Great! If the player rolls below that number, though, the roll fails, and usually, what happens is… not great. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a DM will ask a player to roll with disadvantage. That means they roll twice and take the lower of the two rolls. This increases the likelihood that the player fails the roll.

Sometimes, with writing, you’re rolling with disadvantage. One of the most memorable pieces of writing advice I have ever heard was at a panel at a sci-fi and fantasy convention where the topic was writing and mental health. One audience member asked how the panelists with depression managed to keep writing through a major depressive episode. And one of the panelists essentially said, “I didn’t.” Once he found the an antidepressant that worked for him, he was able to get into a productive writing routine, but during that depressive episode, no number of nifty tricks and tips could help him put words on a page.

And you know what? Sometimes that happens. And it sucks. Like, really sucks, and not just because it keeps you from writing. But it doesn’t make you a bad writer. Here’s a great, but longer series of posts from writer and Writing about Writing Facebook page admin Chris Breechen about the truth about writing routines that says a lot more about this issue than I have the space to say here [2].

Gather yourself a party.

Most D&D games consist of a smallish party of 3 – 6 people. Maybe some parties are bigger, and I’ve DMed sessions with only a single player. But the three main components of D&D—exploration, social interaction, and combat—are easiest when they’re done in a group. And believe it or not, the same goes for writing.

I have taught writing classes of various types[3] for eight years. And I was a writing tutor for five years before that. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that sharing it—scary as it may be—is one of your best tools for moving past writing difficulties, and that includes writer’s block. Even just talking through a scene with someone can help you shape it more firmly in your mind.

Whether you’re part of a formal writing group, or you join a site like Scribophile to trade works with other writers, or you just hand your writing off to a friend or family member for a quick read-through, finding a regular, trustworthy writing party can help you slice through that writing block like a +1 Luck Blade slicing through a Gelatinous Cube.

But learn your party members’ strengths, and be clear in what you ask of them.

Here’s the thing, though. One of the great things about Dungeons and Dragons is that each player’s character has their own strengths; on the flip side, each has their own weaknesses, too. And the same likely goes for your writing party.

Just like you wouldn’t ask your lawful-good paladin to use thieves’ tools to break into a locked treasure chest (that’s your rogue’s job), you don’t necessarily want to talk to your Plot Hole Detector when you’re staring down a Behemoth Blank Page. Now, if you’re actively trying to find those plot holes so you can fill them up—of course, call that Detector over. But for a Behemoth Blank Page, you likely want someone you can bounce ideas off instead.

Now, that’s not to say the same person can’t do both of those things, and that’s why it’s so important to clarify what you’re looking for when you’re asking someone to help you work through a writing difficulty. When you ask for help, be sure you ask precisely.

Rests are good….

In D&D, after several grueling rounds of combat, a party might elect to take a short or long rest to recover some or all of their hit points before they move to the next room in the dungeon. And if you’ve been staring at the same blank page for the last twenty minutes, maybe you do, too. Get up; stretch your legs; make some coffee or tea; meditate. Recover some hit points, and then try tackling that Behemoth Blank Page once more.

…in the proper environment.

In the wrong environment, though, a short rest can prove dangerous. If you don’t properly barricade that door, a wandering Bugbear may burst through and foil your attempt to regain that HP. And most writers know how easy it is for a five-minutes social media break to turn into a whole hour of scrolling. I’m not saying never use social media to break up your writing; I’m saying be honest with yourself about what kind of break will be most useful in any given moment.

What do you think? Do you play D&D? What other lessons does it have for writers? What about other TTRPGs? Let me know in the comments!

Footnotes:

[1]: The McElroys have described it as explicitly not an actual-play podcast, because their goal is not so much actual play as it is comedy and storytelling. But, still.

[2]: Incidentally, as I was scrolling through the Facebook page trying to find that post, I also found a post he wrote titled, “9 Thinks Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me about How to Write.” I didn’t read it until after I wrote this post, but there’s a chance I saw the link on Facebook and it gave me the idea for this post. #nowriterisanisland

[3]: Full disclosure: these classes have been of many types (first-year writing, tech writing, professional writing, digital writing, stem writing, etc), but not of the fiction writing type.