The Good Life: Better Writing Tools But Much Less Certainty
The mental process that I use in writing these columns has not changed a lot in 50 years. But what I write has changed a lot.
So has the technology.
A half-century ago, I pounded keys downward on a manual typewriter. They flipped levers upward, smashing shapes for each letter through an inked ribbon. The images printed (or smeared) onto flimsy tan paper cut from the leftover butt ends of newsprint rolls.
These days, I lightly stroke a wireless keyboard that transmits coded signals to a thin, flat computer screen.
Back then, correcting a mistake involved a typed or hand-drawn strikethrough of the offending word, followed by a scribbled correction above the strikethrough. The Linotype operator might or might not be able to read my scribbling, but usually took a “best guess,” leading to some hilarious mistakes caught by (now extinct) proofreaders – and some not-funny errors that, if published, could provoke lawsuits.
Computers have eliminated that fuzzy transcription – but done away with proofreaders. We are expected to get it right the first time – which nobody ever does all the time.
The process of writing has remained fairly constant. Conceive, organize, type; pause, reread, retype; eventually, finish.
A half-century ago, I sometimes needed to retype the entire column because my first efforts had brought about so many xxxx-outs.
Today, the “delete” or backstroke key cleanses the computer screen during self-editing, and corrections, once typed, are indistinguishable from the first-draft words. A “clean rewrite” in Microsoft Word travels to the newspaper office via email message.
That is a nice change, but not the biggest change.
I have changed.
At three-quarters of a century old, I know a lot more information than I held in my head when I was 30 years old. I now have nearly unlimited access to facts and opinions via Google.
I “know” a lot more stuff.
But I am far less certain that what I write is right.
I went back and checked some old columns.
Forty years ago, what I wrote was so black-and-white. Death penalty? Yep. Abortion? Nope. New York Yankees? Yep. Boston Red Sox? Boo! Hiss!
Last year, I freely admitted that the Red Sox, World Series champions, had a better team than the Yankees.
As I aged, I became a lot more knowledgeable about nuances, from sports to politics. In 1976, I thought Jimmy Carter would be a great President. I voted for him over then-President Gerald Ford. I was sure I had made the right choice.
I had been wrong. Carter was a classic example of the Peter Principle, a small-state governor lost and inept on the world stage.
What had appeared to be such a clear choice was, in fact, muddy.
These days, the words I write still appear in black type on white newsprint. But to me, almost nothing is black-and-white any more.
That is not necessarily good in a newspaper columnist. Today’s Trumpeter Swans want to read only “Trump is great!” opinions. The Obamanauts want only “Trump is a dolt” stuff.
“You are a wishy-washy dolt,” is the sanitized version of what I hear when I suggest that complicated problems require complex solutions.
“The solution is simple; vote for me!” say today’s governmental leaders, both Republicans and Democrats.
But the solutions are neither simple nor easy, and the black-or-white demagogues we elect find themselves incapable, as officeholders, of setting the country on the right paths again.
As a young man, I thought that action was what we needed. Commies over there? Invade. Jim Crow down south? Send in the troops. Guns or butter? Let’s have both. Vietnam? Hey, they’re commies, aren’t they?
I learned. We invaded; Communists still rule nations. We sent troops South; racism still divides us. Guns and butter? We are drowning our grandchildren in debt that will make us the United States of the Third World within 20 more years.
I did not learn what we should do as Americans. I did learn to be less certain about my own recommendations and our collective decisions, to employ reason leavened with compassion instead of doctrines stiffened by anger.
Along the way, a surprising thing happened.
When I stopped shouting in these columns, most people stopped shouting back.
Instead, we conversed. Discussed. Considered. Even, on occasion, conceded that the other person might have the better argument.
It could be an illusion, but I sense a hope among most Americans that in 2019, we will do less screaming and more conversing – which involves genuine, attentive listening to what the other person says, seeking compromise and consensus rather than total-war victory.
That is a nice way to end a year, with an acknowledgement that I have far fewer answers to today’s problems than I once thought I had.
What is sad is that it took damn near 80 years of living to get here.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.