So, here’s the idea. I’m going to write a novel. It will be about a guy — a Catholic guy — and what he goes through in a week. Or two. Or maybe three. I haven’t really thought this all through yet.
That’s OK, however. Like anybody who ever put pen to paper, I figure I’ve got a novel in me.
Which actually gets to the real nub of the problem. Nobody says that kind of stuff anymore, because nobody puts “pen to paper.” People text and tweet, use Facebook and Instagram. Some people still email, although they are heading rapidly to the dustbin of history.
Pen to paper? Most people today won’t catch the reference to writing at all. The cursive style of penmanship taught to the tune of the Palmer Method went belly-up decades ago. In the new digital word, handwriting on actual paper is about as useful as a coal hod in a Volvo dealership.
I think of a whole generation of baby boomers with blue splotches on their shirt pockets from leaking fountain pens, struggling in grammar school to master the rhythmic motions, the loops and curls of handwriting. All in vain.
The digital world — the whole world of social media communications — is the new normal. Trying to write a novel without interweaving its ubiquity would make a story look downright foolish. It would be like writing an Elmore Leonard detective novel where cars and booze don’t exist.
Example. One little vignette I was thinking about for the novel would have one guy listening in on a phone extension at a bar while another guy calls his wife at home. Ridiculous. With cell phones and smartphones, who would be calling someone from a bar on a rotary phone with an extension? I might as well have them send smoke signals.
I try to write down words or expressions I commonly employ (like coal hod for coal bucket) that don’t translate anymore and couldn’t be in a modern story. “Turn the television station.” Nobody’s turned anything on a television for years to get to a different channel.
I actually caught myself recently before saying out loud to “check the icebox” — a phrase from my mother’s tongue — when I wanted someone to look into the refrigerator.
I felt a little better when the prestigious Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times devoted a section to just that topic a few weeks ago. Invited were high-powered contemporary writers to discuss what all the new technologies mean for storytelling.
It was a little fatuous. One writer said: “Modern technology is nothing but a layer of noise that buries them even deeper and which the novelist must clear away to get to the dirt — the stuff great stories are made of.”
But it struck me again how I am becoming a stranger in a strange land. I don’t know how to buy a television any more, cars are becoming a great mystery, a smartphone has become impossible for stupid me to use. And now, I won’t even be able to write, unless to communicate with a few fellow luddites holed up in a cave somewhere that remember my language.
Years ago, I was attentive to a homily an older priest was giving at a small parish in Indiana. I have to admit that I forget what the readings were. But I always remember one part of the homily.
“You spend your younger days doing so much collecting — of stuff, of resources, of knowledge. Then, at some point in time, the process starts to reverse. You begin to drop things along the wayside. You start to strip away all things until, at the end, there is you and there is God. It has come down to the essentials.”
Now that would make a good story.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.