“Writer Unplugged” (by Paul D. Marks)

Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award–winning novel White Heat, and his Macavity Award–winning short story “Windward” was also nominated for a Shamus Award and appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2018. He is an EQMM Readers Award Winner for his story “The Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” part of a series that vividly evokes the particular atmosphere of Los Angeles. In this post, the author discusses an aspect of modern L.A. living that affects daily life and specifically the life of a writer.—Janet Hutchings

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Raymond Chandler called it in the opening of his story Red Wind above. He mentions the Santa Ana Winds, which are something we have to contend with here in California for several months of the year. Also known as the Devil Winds, they’re usually accompanied by low humidity and create extremely dangerous fire conditions. So, in an effort to prevent fires both SoCal Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have been doing preventative safety power shut-offs to large swaths of both southern and northern California respectively.

Because my wife Amy and I live in a fire-prone area we’ve had to deal with these power cut-offs twice recently and possibly more by the time this is published. And let me tell you, it’s not fun. I think we’ve come to take electricity and all it provides for granted, both in general and in how it relates to our writing.

It’s a little mind blowing to realize how dependent we are on electricity for the creature comforts, but in particular how much our writing has become dependent on electricity. Sure, we could write with pen and paper, but how long could we continue and how much would it impact what we write and how we edit?

During the recent nearby fire, we lost power for several days off and on over a week because of the preventative shut-offs, which caused us to lose internet, cell-phone service, and even our landline phone.

Some of the other things we had to do without: refrigeration—and once the power came back on we ended up having to throw out tons of food. No TV or computers. With flashlights we could read a little at night but I’m no Abe Lincoln wanting to read by candle or flashlight. Gas stations weren’t pumping gas. If the power had been off longer we might not have been able to get natural gas either. As it was, we couldn’t heat the house, but the water heater stayed warm. No cooking. And, of course, no writing.

The whole area was dark, which leads one to be concerned about the possibility of looting as well. It was also difficult not knowing what the fire situation was as we couldn’t check the internet. We’re so connected for so many things these days but without internet and, since the cell and landline phone service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. You’re really on your own. That wasn’t a good feeling.

Under normal circumstances, my wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency . . . or so we thought until this recent outage when everything went dead. She takes the train to work and not too long ago got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting, and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate and I wouldn’t have been able to pick her up as the train had stopped running. If this had happened during these current outages, when cell and landline service went off, she would have been stuck.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged-in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to “unplug” sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook, and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience.

In the ye olden days, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to those ways, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric, that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wow! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? One day, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93: I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a personal computer, one of those fancy-schmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, and a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“Wite-Out”). It was liberating.

Not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and Waze. We can’t go anywhere or do anything now without our cell phones. Can’t find out what our friends and relatives are doing or where our kids are hanging out. Can’t find a restaurant or a movie or a parking space—or check on fire and evacuation info. Can’t write.

These electric and electronic conveniences have made our lives easier and have also made writing easier. You no longer have to go to the library and spend hours looking through books and microfiche to dig for information and sometimes come up empty. Now you can do most of your research online. You can do it at 3 a.m. when the library is closed. You can interview someone in France while sitting in the comfort of your own living room.

The internet also helps writers be more connected, to network and share ideas and tips (like on this blog). Writing used to be (and still is) a lonely profession. But social-media websites have made it possible for writers to gather around the virtual watercooler and shoot the breeze or commiserate. I missed that when the power was off.

Computers have changed the ways we work. In some ways they’ve freed us to be more creative. We’re able to be more flexible, change things and rewrite at a whim (like my example above about moving a paragraph). We also have spell checkers and grammar checkers and programs that will keep track of your characters and word count.

The creative process is still difficult. No matter how many bells and whistles we have, there is still the daunting process of the actual writing. And whether you’re writing on an iPad or a stone tablet, it’s still difficult to express those ideas and get them out into the world. Facing a blank computer screen isn’t any easier than facing a blank piece of paper. A writer still needs skill and inspiration to work. But all these modern conveniences really do make the process easier.

I didn’t get any writing done while the power was out. I suppose I could have tried to write with pen and paper but when you’re worried about running out of battery power and trying to get a radio signal so you can find out where the fire is and what areas are evacuating, you don’t have a lot of concentration to write. Besides, I like writing on those modern conveniences—and my handwriting is so bad these days I can’t read what I’ve written. Maybe I should have been a doctor. . . .

So, while all of these devices have made life easier in general and the life of a writer easier in specific, we’ve also become so dependent on them that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course, our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient and a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we were.

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15 Responses to “Writer Unplugged” (by Paul D. Marks)

  1. EARL STAGGS says:

    So true, Paul. I remember those typewriter days. When my wife gave me a Selectric, I thought i had been transported into a future world. I look back now and wonder how any of us wrote anything. I also remember phone booths and how I used to depend on them when I worked in sales. Now you can’t even find one. I just pull out my cell phone. What does the future hold? I shudder to think.

  2. Right on the mark, Paul. We don’t get what you get but we get hurricanes. We reclocated after Hurricane Katrina to a small town on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain (@30 miles from New Orleans) and we put in a natural gas generator. Since we moved here, we’ve had numerous power outages, some for a long as 36 hours, the one for Hurricane Gutave lasted 5 days and we had electricity the whole time. Natural gas is cheap down here and the generator has saved us a lot of trouble. Y’all stay safe.

  3. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks for your comment, Earl. Selectrics and phone booths: the good old days. Where can Superman change these days without phone booths? And who knows what the future holds? Did any of us as kids think that Dick Tracy wrist radios would become reality in our lifetime? It seemed so science fiction. But today our watches can connect to our cell phones and, as you say, who knows what the future holds?

  4. At one time I wrote out all my stories and novels in pen and ink before typing them using my manual Smith Corona. Nowadays I also depend on my computer. When our electric power went out for eight hours in the evening recently I realized how dependent we are. The fires in CA are terrible, much worse than anything here in NJ.

  5. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks for your comment, O’Neil. Unfortunately, I think almost every area has its downsides. We have fires and earthquakes. You have hurricanes. It’s always something, isn’t it? And we’re also thinking about a generator. You stay safe, too.

  6. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks, Jacqueline, for your comment. I used to use a Smith Corona portable before the Selectric, too. Yeah, even when it goes down for eight hours we’re just kind of in limbo. Hopefully we’ll both have our power for a while to come. But you’d think in the 21st century we wouldn’t have to deal with stuff like this, at least not on a regular basis.

  7. gbpool says:

    Sometimes we need the lights to go out so we realize what we have and what we are capable of doing. It’s a good lesson and it might actually be the basis of a good story when our characters find themselves in the dark. It’s that “not being prepared” that should scare the hell out of some folks.Great post as usual, Paul.

  8. Barb Goffman says:

    Good post, Paul. My last house was on septic and my field ran upstream, so when we lost electricity, each toilet only had one flush in it. It wasn’t pretty. Thankfully the power lines were buried and power loss happened infrequently. I can only remember it lasting more than three hours once, during the derecho. It was incredibly hot, so I was thrilled when the power returned. So was Scout.

  9. Jake Devlin says:

    Much empathy for you, Paul. I hope you don’t have to go through that too often in the future. When Hurricane Irma came through here (SW Florida), I lost power for about ten days and had zero flashlights, so I had to use candles; now I’ve got flashlights in every nook and cranny. I never got a cell phone, being a bit of an unintentional Luddite, so I didn’t miss that at all. I’ve written most of my novels and short stories by hand at our local beach, then keyboarded ’em in the evenings. Back in ’74, I wrote (and later produced) a play on a portable typewriter with multiple deteriorating ribbons, and when I thought to put it into book form a few years ago, deciphering the original script had to be done in the sunlight; I’m glad I had cataract surgery a few years back.

  10. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks for your comment, Gayle. I think you’re right about it being the basis of a good story. And I know some people who are totally prepared for things like this but most of us aren’t. And then we’re in a mess.

  11. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks, Barb. We’re also on a septic here, but, uh, I keep some old Arrowhead type bottles of water for just that flushing purpose… And you’re lucky your power lines are buried. Ours aren’t, but I wish they were and it’s something I think they should have done years ago. Glad your power wasn’t out for very long.

  12. pauldmarks says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jake. Yeah, I hope we don’t have to go through it again, let alone too often 🙂 . And I’m sorry to hear about your ten days without power during the hurricane. Wow! That is a long time to be without power. It’s great that you can write by hand at the beach. If I were to try handwriting a manuscript I would never be able to read my writing. And I’m glad you were able to decipher your play.

  13. susanoleksiw says:

    My heart goes out to all of you in the fire zones in California and elsewhere. Here in the northeast we have hurricanes and I remember some of the worst from the fifties. I too began writing with pen and paper, then typing up numerous drafts. The Selectric was a marvel, but I kept my old Hermes just in case. Our power lines are underground but we occasionally lose power, but nothing like other parts of the city. We’re truly spoiled most of the time, spared the vagaries of nature in our modern homes, and I fear things will only get worse.

  14. pauldmarks says:

    Thank you for your comment and your thoughs about the fire zones. I think every area has things to deal with, hurricanes, fire, earthquakes. And you’re lucky your power lines are underground. That might not solve all the problems but I think it would help. And we are definitely spoiled with all the modern conveniences 🙂 .

  15. pauldmarks says:

    PS — That should be “thoughts” about the fires.

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