Vintage-Books-CAL logo

Turn Off the Screen

Wick Downing

I write best when I can’t see what I’m doing. When I have no idea whether what’s going up there is deathless, or drivel. And the reason I have no idea whether it’s good or bad or indifferent is because the screen is off, and I can’t see the words as they are being formed, and all I’m able to see is what’s in my head or what’s outside if I’m looking out the window-and then the words just kind of come gushing out.

Is it deathless prose, or drivel? Well you know what? It doesn’t matter.

It really doesn’t. That’s a very well-known fact that we are all in denial about. Our writing seems to each of us to be of absolute and sublime importance as we write it, as though our little squiggles will be compared to the literary giants and critiqued by masters of criticism and read by the masses. The truth is, who will see it? Who will remember it fifty years from now? Or ten? Or ten minutes from now? The little-known fact we are all in denial about is this. It doesn’t make a rat’s ass what’s up there on the screen, as I write.

When I can truly adopt that attitude, I write my best. Many of you may say that my best is about good enough to discourage the average gnat on the ass of the rat. That doesn’t matter either. With the screen off, I can just write and write and write to my heart’s content.

It’s when the screen goes back on that things get tense. That’s when that editor in me can see that it’s just all truly horrible and the worst kind of drivel-hello. What’s that I put in there? You know what? It isn’t all bad. There’s some good stuff in there.

So here’s the trick. It’s really a derivative of something my good friend John Dunning used to talk about; how he kept himself from editing, as he wrote. He did it another way because he refused to use a computer. He insisted on typing everything on a manual typewriter; and when he’d get going in the morning, rather than revising what he’d written the previous day, he’d start out by copying the last page, and he’d let go of his mind, and take off. Before long, he wasn’t copying what he’d written the day before at all. He was writing something better. He was getting down on it.

Okay. Now this is drivel, because I’ve lost the point I was trying to make. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. I can turn the screen on when I think I have enough drivel, and go back, and edit. That’s when I can turn the drivel into the deathless prose I know my anxious public expects to see from me.

Who is my public, anyway? You? Who are you? I don’t even know you. I may hate you. You may have hair hanging out of your hose. And if I’d had the screen on and was paying attention to what it is I’m writing, I may never have realized that.

But the screen is off–and here’s where I am right now. It’s about four-thirty in the morning, and I have the keyboard on my lap, and I’m looking out the window with no lights on inside the house, and just playing with myself, as Dunning used to say. I knew I’d get back to him. This is how he used to get on the typewriter. He would never interrupt himself as he was writing something and fix a misspelled word, or correct some grammatical mistake or change a comma to a colon. He wouldn’t get all bent out of shape over some stupid mistake that one side of his head thought was so critical. He used the other side of his head, the one that was totally non-judgmental of the appearance of what he wrote; that just had fun and could get carried away with some strange thought, like who are you? Who is my anxious public, anyway?

So the next time you’re in a scene, or in the middle of an article and you’re trying to make it work and it won’t because that’s the way articles can get, and that’s the way stories can get, and that’s the way anything can get-just plain perverse, like two-year-olds demanding attention-then turn the screen off. Maybe the scene or the article or the project you’re all wrapped up in just doesn’t like being watched. Maybe if you’d stop watching it, you could write it. When you watch what you write, it can look awful. You’re watching the words and hearing them and seeing how they’re arranged on the page, and it’s disgusting, or it can be. But if you turn the screen off, none of that matters to you because you can’t see it. You can let your mind wander around it, and play with it, and stroke it and pet it and get down on it real close and smell it if you want.

Later, when you turn the screen back on and edit all the crap that’s up there-hmm. Not all of it is crap. And the stuff that’s up there that embarrasses you, you can delete.

So here’s my advice, which is worth absolutely what you paid for it. Nothing. Here it is anyway. Make it easy on yourself when you write-or at least when you write your first draft. Stop watching the words on the page. Turn off the screen and let yourself soar in the sky like the birds.

Then can come back later, and fix.


Comments are closed.



The CAL Memorial Scholarship honors, as a group, CAL members who have passed away. To make a contribution in an amount of your choosing, please click here:


If you have news about upcoming events, award programs, resources, or other information relevant to the writing community that you'd like us to share, please send the information by email to the CAL Website Administrator.

Click for tips on sharing your news!