Cutting and Pasting … and Pinning?

I’ve just started reading What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. There’s so much to love about this book: the warmth and humor between these two good friends; the leisurely, literary exemplars of the largely lost art of letter writing; the insider look at literary life in twentieth-century America.

The letters span five decades. Eudora writes from Jackson, Mississippi, Bill from New York. Both wrote short stories and novels, and they regularly read each other’s work – he not only as a friend, but also in a professional capacity, as Eudora’s editor at The New Yorker.

In September, 1953, Bob sends Eudora his latest story, “What Every Boy Should Know.” He tells her, “It’s the only copy I have with me – the other having gone off, but I thought it would amuse you anyway to read the past-up version.”

Eudora replies that it’s a lovely story, and spends a paragraph telling Bill why she likes it. Then she writes,

I do see from this how elegant rubber cement is. I’m so used to writing with a pincushion that I don’t know if I can learn other ways or not, but I did go right down and buy a bottle of Carter’s. The smell stimulates the mind and brings up dreams of efficiency. Long ago when my stories were short (I wish they were back) I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as whole and at a glance – helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction […] on the whole I like pins. The Ponder Heart was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (So it’s economical.)

Pins! To hold a story together! I’m old enough to remember the days when “cutting and pasting” was something you did with scissors and bottles of rubber cement. But pins???

For years, I wrote my first drafts in spiral notebooks, with Flair felt-tip pens – green, brown, peacock blue and, by the time I was in college, black. Second and third drafts got typed, but never first drafts. In my romantic, pseudo-flower-child world view, typewriters were impersonal machines that would interfere with my natural, creative flow. But once I finished something in longhand, there was nothing as satisfying as typing out my words – and often making small changes in the process. Subsequent drafts got marked up and retyped until I was satisfied, or gave up. (I usually gave up.)

I promised myself that when I sold my first story to The New Yorker, I would invest my earnings in an IBM Selectric typewriter – complete with feather-light keyboard touch, correcting ribbon, and interchangeable font balls that would let me produce beautiful typed pages in different fonts.

My dreams of a Selectric faded around 1980, when we bought our first personal computer – a Leading Edge with a cool amber display, and an accompanying daisywheel printer. About that same time, I also lost my aversion to composing first drafts at the keyboard. But for years I continued to print out every draft I wrote, mark the pages up manually, and then key in corrections.

Now I hardly ever print anything out. Everything happens electronically, including revisions. It’s so convenient, and it’s much more economical than replacing toner cartridges, not to mention better for the environment than using all that paper. And I’m running out of space to file multiple drafts of abortive writing efforts.

Still, reading a Eudora Welty’s letter makes me a little wistful.

I’m still waiting to sell that first story to The New Yorker. If that ever happens, maybe I’ll invest part of my earnings in a pincushion.

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