The Parable of the Horse and the Cadillac
May 11, 2011
I’m in the process of reading some memoirs in preparation for writing a piece about D. H. Lawrence’s life in New Mexico and the novel he wrote while he lived there. After Lawrence’s death, many of his friends and acquaintances wrote about him. They’re thrilling to read and provide a very detailed account of Lawrence’s life on the ranch Mabel Dodge Luhan gave his wife Frieda. One of my favorites: Lawrence always wore a too big ten gallon hat that he wore, according to a native from New Mexico, too far down over his ears. He wore it, the anecdote said, even in the kitchen of his cabin on the ranch. Another: he was a ferocious rider and galloped full speed ahead wherever he went and always wanted to be the first to reach the ranch.
To get to the Lawrence ranch, you had to journey quite far out of Taos, up into and through a forest. The Lawrence ranch was perched just under a mountain overlooking the desert below at almost 9000 feet above sea level. The road there – not a road, really, but a track – was treacherous and, after a severe summer thunderstorm, it was covered with sharp rocks. The distance from Taos to the ranch wasn’t all that great. Still, it took an automobile about two hours to make it to the ranch. In the 1920s, you couldn’t drive more than 20 miles and hour most of the times, and most of the cars who attempted the climb boiled over on the way, so there would be periods of stopping for an hour or so to wait for the engine to cool down before venturing on.
On one particularly treacherous trip, Joseph Foster describes how his brother-in-law Swinburne Hale drove his brand new $7000 Cadillac from where he lived on a ranch outside Taos up to Lawrence’s ranch. He couldn’t find the way, and found himself on the rim of Hondo Canyon, so he took a track with the Cadillac down into the canyon and discovered there were no roads or trails down there, so he forded the swift-running Hondo River – the water came up to the running boards – and quite by luck found a track on the other side. Hours later, he and Joseph Foster and Swinburne’s sister Catherine motored into a clearing and found the cabin where Lawrence lived. On their way home, the heavy Cadillac went through a plank bridge and they had to abandon the car there and walk home.
Now the moral of the story is this….You could get to the Lawrences’ ranch far, far more easily on horseback. Swinburne owned several horses as did Catherine and John. So why did they take the motorcar – a risky business at best – instead of their trusty horses that knew the way there and knew their way home? Because Swinburne had the car, and because he had it, he wanted to use it, even if it made no sense to use it.
A perfect example of technology getting in the way of what had been a simpler way of doing things – riding a horse in a country, at the time, fit only for horses. No roads. Streams to ford. Flimsy cottonwood plank bridges. But if a man or woman has a car, it has to be used no matter what.
So today I was talking to a writer friend, and she told me that yesterday, she and her husband went through her computer to find all the files that pertained to a gigantic biography they’re writing. “Everywhere he looked,” she said, “there were files. It took him all day long. I didn’t know I had all these files. And then he told me I owed him a drink so we went out.”
She asked me whether, when I was writing the biography of Virginia Woolf I had gone through that too, losing my files and then having to find them and not knowing what I had and having to find what I had and having all these versions of chunks of writing. I said I didn’t.
“I guess it’s harder to lose stuff on your desk than it is on a computer,” she said. And then we started talking about how much easier it was to write a book before computers.
I didn’t write the Woolf book on a computer. I wrote by hand. And I’d taken all my notes for that book by hand. I speculated that our brains work differently if we write a whole book by hand – that we think things out before we write, that we revise slowly, that we’re less impulsive on the page. All of this is neither good nor bad, it just is a function of a different way of working. Still, that book of mine went places I didn’t expect it to go and it was sensational in its own way, so it’s not necessarily true that you only go into unexpected places using a computer that can allow you to pump out language so quickly.
After my friend and I talked, I tallied the number of years it took me to write a book before computers. And without exception, it took me less time than writing a book using a computer. I thought back to a novel I wrote (published only in England) that I wrote in six weeks. I wrote it on a typewriter. An electric typewriter with a ten page memory. I wrote and revised ten pages at a time, cleared the memory, and moved on. I wrote the Woolf book, a gargantuan task, in two years. I wrote a Hawthorne book in one year after having spent a year doing research. The books I’ve written using a computer have taken me far more time. I speculated that the problem with computers is that it lets us go on and on and on and that it seems as if we’re coming to completion but we’re not and the gigantic task of stitching together all the stuff we have and ditching all the stuff that we have several versions of prolongs the time frame of the work and frustrates us even as we indulge ourselves by writing yet another version of that scene that we have several versions of.
D. H. Lawrence could crank out 6000 words a day. Writing by hand. Sitting under a tree in the summer heat of the desert. He’d then hand over his writing to Dorothy Brett who would take longer to type his work than it had taken Lawrence to compose it. He did revise – there are several different completed versions, for example, of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he didn’t revise a chunk of work ten times or more like I have. And why have I? Because the computer makes it easy to rework and rework and rework.
I’ve toyed with the idea of going back to writing a book the old-fashioned way. By hand. And then using the computer like a smart typewriter to enter the work. I’ve been feeling, these days, that writing on a computer is kind of like taking the Cadillac up to Lawrences’ ranch just because you have the Cadillac when riding a horse up there would have been far more sensible. And easier. And less frustrating. And quicker.