Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Writing: The Man with Two Brains

We write with two minds.
 One mind is our subconscious – it’s the motor, burning hot and nasty as it winnows our life experiences and fever dreams to create new worlds.  Call it the muse, or, as Stephen King does, the guys in the basement.  I think of my subconscious as Ernie from Sesame Street, and I am sure my wife is surprised to hear that. (INSERT SARCASTIC MUSICAL CUE HERE.)
The other mind moves the pen, provides the ass-in-chair discipline, weighs grammar rules and vocabulary, and remembers to hit Control-S every couple of pages.  We’ll call him Bert. (Bert, after all, is likely the one who pays the bills on that basement bachelor pad at 123 Sesame Street.  Sans Bert, I think Ernie would be a homeless drunk.  With Bert, I suspect, he’s a simple closet boozer, but we never see that on camera.)
Ernie and Bert cosplayers, courtesy of

             My Bert has gone through a lot of changes since I started “writing” in the early ‘70s. He was low-tech back then.  He worked in pencil on yellow-lined paper, but it really wasn’t his medium. For one thing, his handwriting was terrible. For another, he had this weird tendency to use less of each line as he went down the page.  He’d use the entirety of the top line, but, by the time he got to the bottom, there’d only be about two inches of text. On the other hand, that ‘70s Bert was a pretty good speller, the result of weekly tests and being required to write each word ten times for homework.
In the early ‘80s Bert expanded his repertoire to the typewriter, but only for final drafts. He went digital in the middle of that decade. My dad brought home an Atari 800XL, an early home computer that offered a bona-fide word-processing program on a plug-in cartridge. Bert learned to write first drafts on the word processor and ditched the yellow-paper as fast as his muppety hands could move.
I took a Brother dedicated word-processor to college, and Bert learned to use that for my poli-sci papers and the handful of short stories I banged out in my fiction-writing class sophomore year. The Brother had a daisy-wheel printer and was so loud I had to cover it in towels whenever I worked late. 
Oh, Brother, where art thou?
The ‘90s brought Microsoft, and Bert trained up with inverted pyramid, lightning-fast note taking, and AP Style.  He learned to compulsively back up files. His spelling suffered and never really recovered.
Bert’s broadened his skill set since then. He’s well-versed in Scrivener, Q-10, and Blogger. He can record podcasts, whip out press releases, and produce convincing college recommendations.  Sadly, his concentration abilities took a hit in the late ‘90s when the Internet really took off, and now he has to use a variety of crutches and cons to stay on task.
Whatever the method, Bert’s mission has stayed the same -- harness Ernie’s insanity and put it on the page (or in front of the Sesame Street audience) accurately, concisely, and picturesquely – but his process has changed. Back in the yellow-paper days, Bert did most of the writing in his head, forming mostly complete sentences in his mind before committing them to the page.  Sure, he could go back and change things – scribble whole paragraphs out – but those first drafts were slower and stronger than the ones he’s producing today.  Lately, Bert’s been doing his writing on the page. It’s a more experimental process, and he’s never quite sure where the sentence will be ending when he starts at the “It’s.”  Is writing on the page greater than, less than, or equal to writing in the brain? Hard telling. 
Bert’s handwriting is still piss-poor, so I picked up a typewriter at a lawn sale the other day. It’s a 1968 Olivetti Lettera 33. It typesets in cursive and, according to the Internet, Morrissey used one just like it for all those mopey Smiths songs, and Stanley Kubrick used one for the script of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  (I also have a 1948 Royal Quiet Deluxe – a machine favored by Papa Hemingway – but there’s something up with the ribbon-advance mechanism.)  
 I’ve banged out a few thousand words on the Lettera in recent weeks, and I think Bert likes it. He was reluctant at first, but there’s something about that no-net (nor delete key, nor Control-Z) that he seems to like. He’s also a fan of the sound it makes, the machine smell of metal and oil, and the physical effort that each sentence requires. 
The Olivetti Lettera 33 in action.
She's topless, but still gorgeous.

I see Bert’s point, but I’m not convinced. I like my ability to save and edit text by dragging and dropping. I like saving paper and not wasting ink on draft after draft. I’m a fan of speed, even as I love the slow clunk-clunky my hunt-and-peck typing style creates on the old Olivetti. I hate the idea of retyping the 50,000 words I need for my next project.
Bert bottled me in the head and called me a wimp. Ernie has refused to comment. 
This blog post was brought to you by the letters QWERTYUIOP.


  1. You're lucky that you've identified your muses. Mine is/are shy. I don't know who they are. But definitely some one/thing is pulling the strings.
    None of my muses are techy tho they all like to surf the net.
    Great piece. Heading back to the wip.
    Louise Sorensen
    louise3anne twitter

    1. Good luck with the WIP, Louise. I know my muse's name, but he doesn't always respond to it.

  2. Good stuff. My muse has been corrupted.

    1. My muse was already pretty corrupt.

  3. I never thought of the Ernie/Bert dichotomy before. It makes perfect sense.

    I always thought of the two sides of my writer brain as Ariel and Caliban from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but that's probably just my college education showing.

    I like Bert and Ernie better.

    1. The more I ponder it, the more I believe much of humanity's duality is expressed in the Ernie-and-Bert relationship. It also explains my cats' behavior, so I can only postulate that Ernie and Bert hold the secret to the universal source code.

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  5. Bert and Ernie. Love it. I can't say I'm a big fan of the typewriter. Maybe it's because I'm old enough to have been forced to use one in high school, so it's not a retro fad to me, but a reminder of dark days with inked fingers. But, it's fun to explore, and if it pleases Bert, wonderful.