Interview with Ernest Hebert, Award-Winning Author and Professor of Creative Writing at Dartmouth College

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I recently had a chat with Ernest Hebert, retired 25-year-plus professor of creative writing at Dartmouth College. Author of “The Old American” and “Never Back Down”, Ernie is best known for The Darby Chronicles – including award winners, “The Dogs of March” and “Spoonwood”. For those engaged in writing of any form, Ernie gives some excellent insight into the writing-building process. WorkFlowy now features heavily in his writing modus operandi.

FRANK: Could you give me the rough trajectory of your WorkFlowy journey?

ERNIE: I’ve been a WorkFlowy aficionado since 2013, and I use it for everything–a calendar of my own making, todos, drafts of lectures, talks, Facebook posts, first drafts of fiction, rants and diary entries, databases of notes, address book, etc. I’ve always worked with outliners on the Mac–Acta, More, Omni, Opal, and many others–until I discovered WorkFlowy. The outliner format just seems to fit the way my brain works.

FRANK: When pitting a manual typewriter against even the simplest of (digital) word processors, you say:

“A typewriter is a word processor that saves directly to the paper. That is its glory, and that is its doom.”

What mixed bag of devices, instruments, apps and software have you used to “pen” your thoughts over the years? Has your 1940 Underwood typewriter featured at all lately?

ERNIE: I still have that typewriter and I still use it, but I’m also a sucker for the latest computer gadget. Here’s a list of machines I’ve owned: Radio Shack models I, II and 101; Atari ST: Dell running XYwrite, a DOS based word processor; Mac Plus; Mac Plus with hard drive; Windows machine (can’t remember the brand); iMac G5; Power Mac: G4 Cube; iMac 21 inch; iMac 27 inch; Macbook 2016 (my current machine); four iPads, including the latest 12.9 Mac Pro. Oddly one of my favorite writing devices is an Alpha Smart Neo 2, which I still use.

I’ve done a huge amount of experimenting with different software for writing. Probably my craziest experiment (that actually worked) was to write the first draft of a book on Adobe Illustrator.

SKEUOMORPHISM: “The design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts. Skeuomorphism is commonly used in many design fields, including user interface (UI) and Web design.”

FRANK: In a blog post entitled, “Skeuomorphism” you wrote,

“Skeuomorphism helped make computers accessible to people. Microsoft’s operating system is called ‘Windows’. ‘Files’ are placed in ‘Folders’… So much of human understanding is based on relating one thing to another…”

We have our digital counterparts of “tags”, “lists”, “notes”, “notebooks”, “cards”, etc. in apps like Evernote, Trello and WorkFlowy… but do you think that WorkFlowy’s “expandable”, “collapsible”, “nest-able” and “zoom-able” moving parts and dynamics have relatable, non-digital doppelgängers?.. or do you think we’ve moved into territory where there’s less of a material connection… where skeuomorphisms can’t adequately convey a WorkFlowy dynamic?

ERNIE: Let’s compare digital with non-digital in terms of script writing for the movies.

Back in the world of typewriters the movie people came up with a beautiful system for formatting a typed script, relating to spacing, margins, scene headings, dialogue, and description. If you followed the format, every page would equal to about one minute of screen time. If you’re working on a typical two-hour movie, you always know where you are in your file by what page you’re on. That system was brilliant and it has carried over into the digital world. Which is why today virtually every professional screenwriter uses professional scriptwriting software (and why Courier font, a typewriter based monofont rules screenwriters).

Unlike novel writing, which is often loose, idiosyncratic and dependent on the author’s voice, screenwriting is very tight and requires organizational talents from the writer. Most old time scriptwriters, before they started writing their scripts would organize their story with notecards. They’d jot down scene titles with a few notes and then shuffle the note cards. It’s a swift and handy way to organize a story, but in my experience, unlike actually writing the script, the notecard metaphor doesn’t translate well to the digital world. Real notecards are still better, probably because hands are better at shuffling notecards than a computer mouse shuffling digital note cards.

The digital solution to organizing a story is to use an outliner like WorkFlowy. Unlike the note card metaphor, the digital outliner is far superior to typing or handwriting an outline because you can collapse and move your text at will.

My point is that in some respects handwriting and typing remain superior to their equivalents in the digital world, but for most kinds of writing, digital is best. I think if you’re serious about writing it’s a good idea to experiment and see what works for you.

FRANK: In answering the question, “Is writing hard?”, you offer the following:

“While writing is never unpleasant for me, it is time-consuming. I rarely get the words right with the first draft. Or the second draft… So, then, writing is not hard, but it is hard work. It’s work that some writers don’t like doing.”

Does WorkFlowy in any way make a dent in the “time-consuming” part for you?.. or maybe shave off a tad bit of the hard work?

ERNIE: I can’t speak for other writers, but for me when I’m writing seriously (fiction or poetry or nonfiction that requires a lot of thought) I don’t want the writing to go too fast. An idea needs time to gestate, so I work at slowing myself down. One good way to do this is to retype a paragraph or page or even an entire chapter. The act of retyping helps me rethink and refine my material. If you will forgive my vernacular: It’s as if the hands know some shit the head don’t.

WorkFlowy does two important things for me: First and most important, WorkFlowy is my data base for text. I used to have notes all over the damn place, in various apps and files, and I frequently couldn’t find the stuff I wanted or it got buried and I forgot about it. Since I started putting everything in WorkFlowy I have never been unable to retrieve some info that I’m after. Also because of the way I organize my material, by subject matter, I can scan through it and the headings will remind me of information I’ve forgotten.

The second thing WorkFlowy does for me is help me organize material by outlining, mainly in the early stages of a project. When I’m writing seriously in the later stages of writing I prefer a word processor that allows me to use my favorite font, Courier, with page numbers, 1.8 line spacing, etc.

FRANK: A lot of your dark humor is right up my alley. You posed a not-half-bad workaround in “Satire: The Death Penalty” :

“The only humane way for the state to kill somebody is not to tell them they’ve been sentenced to death. Then, when they least expect it–when they’re sleeping, eating a meal, or sitting on the toilet–sneak up on them and shoot ’em.”

I can’t help but think of the anxiety that deadlines (combined with procrastination) bring us – especially when we see them coming from far off. How do you deal with deadlines for your own writing projects? Do you have a mental hack – or even a hands-on one – which helps minimize the potential for stress?

ERNIE: I like deadlines for professional work, that is, work for other people, because it gets me going. For example right now I’m writing an essay for a talk I’m giving. Deadlines are very helpful. But in my personal work I never make deadlines. I want the writing to grow organically. Sometimes that’s fast. (I wrote the first draft of Mad Boys in two weeks and had the whole thing done in less than six months.) More likely it’s slow. It typically takes me three to four years to write a novel, and that’s working every day. I kinda hate to see the end of a book; upon completion I get a crashing feeling that lingers for a few days. When I’m working a book I get this vain, god-like feeling that I’m in charge of this universe. The minute it’s finished and I have to give it to someone else to read, I’m a little kid begging for attention – hence the crash.

Regarding stress: It’s always lowest when I’m writing, so for me stress and writing do not go together.

FRANK: You described how you threshed out the outline your first novel (The Dogs of March, 1979) and your most recent one (Howard Elman’s Farewell, 2014) while driving in your car. Is this a rule of thumb for plotting your novels? Has anything changed for you over the years with your transcription method?

ERNIE: I still plot big projects on the road. I used to carry a big klunky tape recorder. Now I just use the voice recorder app on my iPhone. As for transcription method: I used to type out my tape notes on paper, now I type them into WorkFlowy. I have a heading that says “TAPE NOTES”, which starts with the date of transcription. From there I’ll move individual notes to a relevant file, kill some, and keep some in the tape file (Note that I still refer to my recorded notes as “tape” notes, though there is no tape involved. In this case “tape” becomes a dead metaphor, a word whose original meaning has been forgotten).

FRANK: I think many will identify with the way you build on and bring your writing to life:

“You don’t build a novel like a sculptor carving a stone block, you build a novel like God creating a coral reef. Start with a word, make a phrase, encapsulate the phrase in a sentence, write more sentences that fit nicely into a paragraph, and so forth until you have 90,000 or so words.”

Does WorkFlowy in any way add to or grease the wheels of your ideation and building process? Does it [WorkFlowy] open up any practical means by which the evolution of a word to a phrase to a sentence to a paragraph to a book becomes a tad more intuitive?

ERNIE: Oh, yes. WorkFlowy is very helpful in creating a novel scene in all the obvious ways (moving headings to organize them, collapsing headings to see the big picture), but also in a way that surprised me when I discovered it. And that’s printing. There are times when I want to read a section on paper. I don’t want to have to screw around with formatting. I just want a fast copy to read, to get a feel for the text, and sometimes to pencil-edit. WorkFlowy’s printing feature is immediate, readable, with page numbers. I love it.

FRANK: Would you mind sharing a WorkFlowy outline or two with us?.. Anything with a snippet of your writing that has been or is going to be published?

ERNIE: My wife and I live in cold New England, but for the last four years we’ve spent January and February in New Orleans. I was taking a walk one day and I made a voice recorder note: “Desire and Piety streets run side by side.” Those streets names hit my lapsed-Catholic funny bone. That night, transcribing my voice notes into WorkFlowy, I got an idea for a short poem. Written entirely in WorkFlowy, with lots of fiddling, before it came out like this:

FRANK: You think you might be sitting on some simple WorkFlowy dynamics for which writers in general might be eternally indebted to you?

ERNIE: I don’t think so. I use WorkFlowy in the simplest of ways: Move and collapse headings. That’s it. It’s the simplicity that appeals to me, so I have nothing to share that is of any use. … Let me add that when I read your book, Frank, once I got into it, I didn’t read it as an aid to help me master WorkFlowy, though that was the starting point. I read it as a work of art. My interest and appreciation was in seeing your mind at work. You brought elegance and depth to this app in a way that no one else had even tried. It’s not the app that is inspiring; it you, your passion and intelligence.

FRANK: I’ve got to ask… is there any significance to the cracked iPhone/ smartphone in the following image?:

ERNIE: The significance is that somewhere in me is an idiot who loses and breaks things. That’s my iphone 5 that I stepped on.

FRANK: You’ve certainly made an art of delivering vivid metaphors in your punchlines:

I turned 75 this year, and I ask myself what it’s like as opposed to, say, turning 25 or 35 or even 55. Here’s what I’ve come up with. Imagine yourself lying down outside. It’s a beautiful day. You can feel the warm sun on your face. You hear the birds chatter. Friends and loved ones come by and you have great conversations. You don’t worry about having to go to work. Your schedule is your own. You are content until you realize that you are tied to the railroad tracks and you don’t know when the train is coming.

What’s next for Ernest Hebert? You’re a recently retired professor… but can a writer really ever get past the writing?

ERNIE: My most recent project, THE CONTRARIAN VOICE, a book of poems scheduled to be published in September, started in WorkFlowy in 2013; I completed the first two drafts in WorkFlowy… My main creative work in retirement is drawing. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but I have no aptitude for drawing. Doesn’t matter. Now that I’m retired I decided just to have fun. Mainly, I’m drawing images from my books. Say you write a scene that takes place in cabin in the woods. You don’t want to slow the narrative so you write just enough about the cabin to locate the reader. Now that I’m drawing, I can put all the stuff that’s not in the books into the drawing. It’s a lot of fun–fun is my operative word for retirement. Maybe I’ll write another novel, maybe not. I don’t care one way or another. I’m just going to follow my muse. Maybe that’s a musetake.

7 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on ITERWEB and commented:
    Rilancio con piacere questa intervista di Frank Degenaar a Ernest Hebert, professore di scrittura creativa, su come WorkFlowy semplice ma potente strumento per organizzare idee, contenuti, attività e molto altro, sia entrato a pieno titolo a far parte della sua cassetta degli attrezzi per la scrittura.
    Frank Degenaar è l’autore di “Do Way, Way More in Workflowy”, Ernest Hebert è professore in pensione del Dartmouth College, università statunitense, situata ad Hanover, nella contea di Grafton, New Hampshire.

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