On the day Ray Bradbury died, I was sitting at a computer loaned to me by a local library, working on the first draft of Howard Carter Saves the World. This is important because Mr. Bradbury, you see, didn’t own a typewriter when he started out. He rented one in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library for $.10 per half hour. Fahrenheit 451 famously cost him $9.80 to write.
That’s a bargain by any measure.
If you’ve never used a typewriter to write anything of length, I invite you to go do so and come back to marvel with me at the economy of this claim. One of the great works of American Letters took less than 49 hours to complete. That’s a groundbreaking novel (originally published as a serial in Playboy magazine) written in 6 and a half standard workdays. All because its author was counting his dimes.
How many dimes did you spend on your last story?
I understand that there’s infinite variety in writing styles and there’s no such thing as a correct answer to “How long does it take to write a good book?” As with any art, it takes as long as it takes.
But if your computer charged you a fee for every half hour you spent, how much faster would you write? If you’re like me, you would write so much faster it would make your head spin. Because one of the problems with writing on a computer is all the many other things you can do with a computer.
If you were paying for the time on the computer, how much less time would you spend looking at cute pictures of kittens and poking your friends on Facebook?
How much farther would $9.80 get you on a typewriter versus an internet-enabled laptop?
There’s no right answer to this. The internet is blessing and curse. A digital circus that is hard to ignore, but also a bottomless cup of stories from which to drink. I think it boils down to whether you want to write stories or put on digital clown makeup and take the center ring.
As Robert Lynn Aspirin said in the forward to one of his books: “There are fast writers and there are slow writers, I’m a half-fast writer.” I, for one, have been on an unintentional journey between the the land of fast and the land of half-fast.
At risk of plundering the pun, I don’t want to be a half-fast writer. I don’t want to be a half-assed writer either.
In the past couple of months, I have spent less time writing and written more than I would have otherwise. I have filled several notebooks with story ideas and notes and snippets of text. I’ve also re-edited a book I’d long ago thought worthy of abandoning into something sleeker and more worthy of a reader’s time.
The simple fact is that — try as we might to art it up — writing is a business, so even though I don’t have an hourly wage as a writer, I am very much paying for every minute spent at the keyboard. If you’re going to be your own employee, be a productive one.
I would never get away with treating my hourly employer this way; why let myself get away with treating myself like that?
Ray Bradbury was infamously curmudgeonly about the internet. He hated it like my cat hates baths. I disagree with him on that point. I think it’s an inexhaustible well of words and enthusiasm. An entire virtual world built entirely out of ideas. But he has a point nonetheless; and though my computer ills are now past, I like to think I’ll remember how good it felt to just sit and put words on a page.
In the end, it’s your dime.
Note: Adjusted for inflation, $9.80 in 1950 translates to $100.17 in today’s money. Still cheap at twice the price. http://m.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=%249.80+%281950+dollars%29&x=0&y=0