I could see I was snowed in but good. My circular drive had three huge drifts, and the dirt road that led out to the paved road was drifted over in several places. Snow was still falling, and a hard, cruel wind was blowing from the northwest—a true Wyoming blizzard. I walked the half mile out to the corner to see how bad it was, and I decided I wasn’t going anywhere. Even if I did dig myself out and manage to get to the main road, I would lose a few hours, and most of my work would be drifted over when I got back.
I had really wanted to go my office on this Saturday morning because I needed to write up some material for a course study guide. This unit was on Jane Austen, and I had already done the reading, planned the topics, and formed an outline in my head. I needed to get to that computer and get my work done.
In the past I have frowned at hearing someone say, “I’d be lost without my word processor.” I’ve written several book-length manuscripts by hand, and I’ve sworn not to become dependent on the machine. Even so, I have come to rely on it quite a bit for certain kinds of work, especially memos, reports, course materials, and e-mail. Working on the study guide, I had composed all the chapters and appendices at the keyboard. This was my last unit, and I wanted to get back into WordPerfect and knock it out. But I couldn’t.
I went back inside the house, unpacked my stuff, and wrote the Jane Austen material by hand. It occurred to me that the situation held some irony, since Jane Austen writes about a world in which people get snowed in, write long communications by hand, and wait for one thing or another—all in a world without electricity. I felt that Jane Austen would have approved, and when the power went out in the afternoon and stayed out for twenty-four hours, I did what a real man in her world would do. I wrote about the whole ordeal in my journal.
Sunday broke a little fairer. The sun came up, the wind died down a little, and the snow had ceased moving horizontally. The white-out was over. I walked out to the main road again and saw a prodigious drift blocking the exit. I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with that, so I walked back home and went to work on my driveway. With the cold wind at my back, I excavated methodically, carving out gleaming white slabs of hard-packed snow. In two hours I cut a path for my pickup.
It’s a point of pride for some of us to do as much for ourselves as we can. I thought that if a tractor ever did open up my road (which I was not counting on), I would not have to ask the driver to plow my driveway. It’s kind of a stubborn pride—preferring to work with an ax, a shovel, a hoe, or a posthole digger, even when there is a machine within driving distance.
Of course, the job has to be right. When my brothers and I built the house I live in, we had a backhoe dig the basement. Without question I use a four-wheel-drive pickup. On a small scale, however, doing things the old way can have its rewards.
For expediency, especially in perfunctory correspondence, I will go straight to the word processor to get the thing done. But for some correspondence, I still prefer to sit in my chair and handwrite. I also know that some people like to read that kind of letter. They see that the writer took the time and care to give the letter a personal touch. The much-ridiculed form letters and Christmas newsletters are functional, but they do not have the grace of a personally written letter. Furthermore, the person who chooses to handwrite a letter can silently express pride in not having lost touch with the act of writing.
One time several years ago I was working on a committee, and at the end of the day when all the secretaries had gone home, the dean of instruction decided he needed to get out a memo about our committee’s work. He took out a sheet of paper and a pen, and he wrote a full page on the spot. I was proud of him. He could trust himself to express his ideas clearly, and he was not afraid to do it by hand.
Because I teach writing, I have opportunities to encourage people not to lose touch with the ability to write by hand. Don’t depend on the machine, I tell them. Be able to have those words come out at the tip of a pen or pencil. You never know where you might be when a good idea occurs to you, or when you simply need to communicate something.
I don’t think it is a good idea to consider the word processor indispensable from beginning to end. Nor do I think that people should take too much pride in using e-mail and shunning “snail mail.” I think we should stay in practice. We should resolve not to be helpless in case the power goes off or the machine isn’t close at hand. And we should simply have pride in knowing how to do the thing itself, at least on a small scale.
Again, the job has to be right. Anybody who writes something that is going to go through more than one draft would be an idiot not to use a word processor for successive drafts if it were available. The word processor may be responsible for wordiness in some documents and for proliferation in general, but it is also a great help in revising, editing, and manuscript preparation. And for people who compose first drafts at the keyboard, I am sure it is also a blessing.
The job was right for me to dig out my driveway, but I’m no idiot—not in that way, at least. I was happy to see the huge yellow tractor cutting a straight white channel down my road. In ten minutes, that man did what I might have done in ten or twenty hours, if I had been fool enough to try. I stood at one place and watched him push an enormous mountain of snow past me—in those ten seconds, he did what I had done in two hours. It reminded me how much we really should value technology and not take it for granted. But it also helped remind me, by contrast, that we can still have some small parts of our lives in our own hands, if we choose to. We can preserve a little grace in our lives, and we can write with pride.
The experience narrated above took place during a big storm in April 1997. I wrote this account a little later, and it was published in 2002 in Emerging Voices, a creative writing magazine at Western Nebraska Community College. Once again I express my appreciation to my friends in nearby Nebraska, and I am happy to share this story with a new audience.