What I Learned From Programming as a Writer

Maybe, it’s time (and isn’t it always?) to reconsider old ideas and habits regarding writing:

Successful writers, regardless of whether they’re writing novels, nonfiction, poetry, or drama, are prolific because they write regularly, usually every day.  They reject the idea that they must be in the mood to write” p. 27, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing

In an intriguing approach to the question, What Can Programmers and Writers Learn from One Another? the following point is made:

Some argue that computer programming should be offered instead of a foreign language requirement, while others say it’s crucial to engineering and robotics. Rarely is coding considered a complement to the English curriculum. But what if learning to code could also make students better writers?
There are more similarities between coding and prose than meet the eye. “The interesting thing about writing code is you don’t really write code for the machine,” said Vikram Chandra, a professor of creative writing at UC Berkeley and author of “Geek Sublime,” on KQED’s Forum. “That’s almost an incidental byproduct. Who you really write code for is all the programmers in the future who will try to fix it, extend it and debug it.

Given that English and Foreign languages are being thrown out–you won’t guess that my degrees are in English (BA) and English as a Second Language (MA)–as worthless, a point that I can’t dispute economically and based on research, but one drives me crazy given how much I know about the key to success in my own career (writing, writing, writing!), I would naturally encourage kids to go learn Python or something.

The closest I ever saw programming and writing come together was when I met a programming prodigy–I judged him so because, at 17 years of age, he was hired by a company in California and flown to live there so he could do work for them–who had returned from California. My avid interest in Sci-Fi/Fantasy books had prompted me to share Hickman and Weis’ Dragonlance stories. The programmer prodigy found these books intriguing because he wanted to program a game about dragons, etc. Reading the books put him in the “right frame of mind.” He also wanted me to write the storyline, which I briefly considered but since I was just starting to teach (in fact, my first 6 months of teaching in a Catholic school), I didn’t see writing a story for a programmer working out of a closet (literally, a closet where he did his programming at home) worth the effort and time.

I’d started trying to learn how to program when I was 13 years old, laboriously analyzing Nibbler articles and painstakingly typing into my old Apple //e’s BASIC program. One time, when a friend was over, we stayed up until 2:00am–which is nothing for xbox gamers on a sleepover these days–trying to get the code right. We failed. At that point, I decided I wasn’t a programmer. I tried again later, dabbling in assembly language books. Again in high school, then college. I failed miserably. Fortunately, by college, I knew how to use word processors, databases, and spreadsheets to get things done. It gave me an edge on others…and, more importantly, I could write a lot faster than almost anyone I encountered.

Some of my take-aways from the article cited at the top of this include the following:

  1. “Somebody who sits down with a thesaurus and tries to construct a script that is best for human understanding, not for computer understanding.”
  2. Coding, unlike most fiction writing, is essentially collaborative in nature. If computer scientists can’t follow the effects of the code through the machine, it becomes incomprehensible
  3. “When I’m writing a novel and when I’m writing code, I can see certain analogies,” he said. “For example, the composition of complexity by building simple objects and putting them together.”
  4. “And then you compose all these small bits of functionality to make greater functionality. It’s like putting together a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle, but the jigsaw puzzle has to come apart very easily and then allow the replacement of some of the parts with newer parts.”
  5. “When I give you a piece of text to read, I’m handing you a script that you will run inside your own brain, that you will perform inside your own brain, and that will transform you.”

These are some profound connections. What I learned as a writer who failed at programming may not be so profound but I offer it up anyways:

  1. When I write a list article, my goal is to write as simply as possible, making the journey a logical one for the reader. You start here, then you go there, then over there, here, and arrive at the end and it all made sense. 
  2. When I try to write fiction, which I’ve never actually tried (much), I stumble around, not sure where I’m going. This may come from my experience with fiction writing as a “story and characters that develop on their own.” I suspect that while this may be true, fiction writing has to be supported as rigorously, if not more so than non-fiction writing.
  3. In the list article I am fond of, replacing bits of functionality is easy. But you have to add a bit of sparkle to each in the form of dialogue, a story that includes the human or emotional impact. These parts can be shuffled around, added in, but they should be present.
What I learned as a programmer was that I lacked the patience to understand the tools for the job, then write code and fix it up. Simply, I lacked the stamina to write in long-form then revise until the piece was ready. My failure as a “long form” writer and a programmer ultimately comes down to impatience with the process, as well as a failure to see the whole story. What I like about the list article format, and blog entries, is that they are usually short. The pain of the experience, much like the bliss, can be taken in small doses.
I’m reminded of a book I read earlier by Rick Cook entitled, Wizard’s Bane. In it, the main character is a computer programmer who figures out how to interact with magic:

Q: How does a shanghaied computer geek conquer all the forces of Darkness and win the love of the most beautiful witch in the worldA: By transforming himself from a demon programmer into a programmer of demons!It all began when the wizards of the White League were under attack by their opponents of the Black League and one of their most powerful members cast a spell to bring forth a mighty wizard to aid their cause. What the spell delivered was master hacker Walter “Wiz” Zumwalt. The wizard who cast the spell was dead and nobody— not the elves, not the dwarves, not even the dragons—could figure out what the shanghaied computer nerd was good for.But spells are a lot like computer programs, and, in spite of the Wiz’s unprepossessing appearance, he was going to defeat the all-powerful Black League, win the love of a beautiful red-haired witch, and prove that when it comes tospells and sorcery, nobody but nobody can beat a Silicon Valley computer geek!

You know, I think I’d rather use programs and read fiction than write it. Ah, well. Not much has changed in the last 30 years…maybe it’s time it did.

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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