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.


6 Responses to “The Parable of the Horse and the Cadillac”

  1. Julie Raynor Says:

    I have no doubt of this. It’s something I’ve been wondering about myself, along with how to make a hybrid method, as you suggest, using the computer as a typewriter to input handwritten material rather than the creation/revision slate–that blue ether of infinity–

  2. Anna Says:

    I too am still working by hand in this preliminary phase, and think I may well continue, using the computer only as a super-typewriter. This post is an encouragement to do that. Louise, I’m fascinated by your time comparisons. We might also consider all the world-class writers in the pre-computer age who managed to be marvelously prolific. Surely we can learn from them.

    On my visit to the Lawrence ranch years ago, it blew my mind to see that D.H. had a proper grave, while Frieda was buried at his feet. Couldn’t help thinking about Vikings and their dogs—or is that only an “urban” legend?

  3. You are truly amazing. When I need a pick me up (often) I blog you.
    I think it might help me with my work (Growing up Sicilian in NJ-working title) and It does help me. YOu are always writing what I need to hear.
    But I need to come and see you, and have you look at my work, to tell me if I should stick to painting and traveling….or continue with my writing.
    I first read your work when I took a workshop with Edi Giunta in Jersey City.

  4. Aly B Says:

    I found this parable to be useful like most. It makes an interesting point about the writing process. I found great pleasure in acknowledgement of the points made with regard to how your brain functions when it comes to writing. I also like how you point out a common problem amongst many individuals (including myself) about how we go on and on when writing on the computer, thinking we are approaching completion, when we actually haven’t.

  5. Theodora Venizelos Says:

    Hello Louise,
    I think your blog is acknowledging something I’ve thought of many times, that although it is considered superior, using a computer is not the best way to write. Many times I feel held back while using a computer. The bright screen hurts my eyes, and leaning on my desk is horrible for my back. Oftentimes when I write in a notebook I feel so liberated. The words just flow.

    We are programmed to think that the most recent developments are better than anything that has come before. But as you say, D.H. Lawrence could write up to 6000 words a day. Most of the greatest creative works ever written were composed ages before typewriters or computers came along. The irony here is that sometimes what is considered the hard way of doing something is actually the easy way to do it.

  6. Scott Moul Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,
    This is an interesting post. I am probably the only student in my memoir class who can remember the days before computers. I recently dug out a bag of old writing—from my early teens through my late twenties—and it is all written in longhand. I don’t think I’ve written anything but notes and a few assigned writing exercises in longhand, in the past ten years.

    In our first memoir class meeting, I asked Dr. Giunta if I could use a laptop for in-class writing. She replied that I certainly could, but she also suggested I try to write longhand, to get that particular experience. I took her advice to heart, and have refrained from computer use in the classroom; at home, though, it’s all digital.

    All of the early works that I recently found are poems and lyrics. Outside of grade school work, I have never written long pieces by hand, or on a typewriter. All of my college work has been composed in Word. I suppose in this way I am more similar to my young classmates than to writers my own age. I do understand your points about writing on a computer “going on and on,” as opposed to the tangible, finite divisions that physical pages allow. Writing freehand or typing on a typewriter something I would like to experiment with more, in the future.

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