A hand-written confession

I have been going through writer’s block in this last month. It is not the result of a lack of ideas – I have no problem here, I assure you. But what has become tiresome for me is the way I write, the physical writing process. I have suffered for a long time with this because I have over the last couple of years not been comfortable with my expectations when it comes to writing. These expectations have been influenced by people in Starbucks with their laptops, all writing the next great novel, or pictures of word-processing pages in designer offices with the ghastly #amwriting.

This is my confession: I cannot produce written content on a computer. Simply cannot do it. The very idea that I can just get out my laptop, open up a new document in Pages (yes, I’m a MacUser), and then ‘create’ something that speaks not only to me, but also to a generation, is ludicrous. And I would go even further to say that no-one can produce anything worth reading directly on the screen, without the intermediary of pen and paper, the usual, historical tools of the craft.

Unfortunately, this conviction led me several years ago to think that I would be able to use a notebook and pen to the same effect. It worked, more or less, and I managed to write the majority of a first draft of a hitherto unpublished novel, in one notebook. Yet this has it own accompanying problem: it is difficult to keep a steady organisation system because Moleskine don’t use pagination and Leuchturm, which do, just don’t have the same feel. What then invariably happens when it comes to a notebook is that I start out in earnest (just like the first days of a new school year) and tell myself that this notebook will be different, this notebook will be organised. But after a while it becomes littered with poems, reviews, sketches, quotes, score tables for card games, telephone numbers, email addresses, silly sketches, recommendations for plumbers and all sorts of miscellany. It is no good.

Another point, more subtle, is that I feel enclosed in one of those books – aware that I only have 280 or so pages in which to manoeuvre, sentences, ideas and stories lie on the pages as if they were coffins. I want my writing to be able to roam free, and, like the never-ending chocolate fountain, provide an infinity of active thought.

Let’s go back to my confession of not being able to use a computer to create. When it comes to writing, you have to love the way you write. For me, it is connecting a metal nib to a blank page, watching the ink flow out on to the paper. That is the most profound sensation of writing. And then, to look back over what I have written and see how the ink has gradually taken over the whole sheet.

The etymology of writing in many languages has either the sense of painting, like in Slavic roots, or etching in most other Indo-European languages. This is an important aspect of the process because it is part of the creation of an idea. A pen can scratch or paint; typing on a typewriter can have a similar effect. But a computer? It is sterile. No physical connection with matter.

I found vindication of this idea from a recent interview with Joyce Carol Oates, published 15 July 2020 in Le Monde for a series called “L’Ecrivaine à l’ouvrage“. Joyce Carol Oates begins by talking about her first typewriter and the sensations it brought about in her. The journalist resumes:

Oates speaks of this machine like a craftsperson might talk about their best tool. She describes the pleasure of placing a finger on a letter, pressing down the key, seeing the metal leg rise and the perfect sketches of a ‘j’, or a ‘c’ or an ‘o’ imprint itself on the page. (My translation)

The magic of a young writer taking sheer delight in the creation of ink ink on paper, an excitement that will never abandon you. As Oates says in the article, “I felt the same pleasure as I do today whenever I write by hand – the satisfaction of calligraphy.” Yes, I have to tell myself, I enjoy the act of writing only when it involves something that ressembles calligraphy. Oates goes on:

At the beginning, love of art is first of all love of action that consists of creating. A young child doesn’t say to herself, ‘Later, I will be a writer or artist.’ What she feels is to what extent she takes pleasures in inventing, painting or drawing. First action, and then definition.

And why would we, as we get older, take ourselves away from the action which gave us the pleasure in the first place? What can we hope to achieve if we try to get the same result using a different method, a method which doesn’t actually contribute the same sensation or satisfaction as the original one? We will chase our ambitions, but lose sight of our dreams.

This leads me to another confession, but one that I didn’t intend to make here: I do want to be a writer. I do want to connect the thoughts that go on in my head with the page via ink and share them with people who will want to read them. Why? Because. That is all, and when this sensation has come to you, or you have found it somewhere, it needs no other explanation, merely acknowledgement and sincerity.

You might be wondering, after all of this, that if I am not using a laptop or notebook, what on earth am I writing on? Here, I must thank another writer, but one who passed away a little more than a year ago: Toni Morrison. In a 1992 interview with Elissa Schappell for The Paris Review, called ‘The Art of Fiction’, Toni Morrison talks a little about her writing process.

Interviewer: What is the physical act of writing like for you?
Morrison: I write with a pencil.

Interviewer: Would you ever work on a word processor?
Morrison: Oh I do that also, but that is much later when everything is put together. I type that into a computer, and then I begin to revise. But everything I write for the first time is written with a pencil, maybe a ball point if I don’t have a pencil. I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil.

Interviewer: Dixon Ticonderoga number two soft?
Morrison: Exactly. …

It is the fact that the interviewer knows the specificity of the pencil that Morrison uses shows that this is her preferred tool, like Oates’ craftsperson talking about their favourite implement. When I read this, it was further encouragement and affirmation that the laptop is not the place to create writing – there is no physical act.

As a result, what I am writing on is a large block of lined writing paper – the very kind I used way back when for writing essays on. Indeed, I found it in the ‘Back to School’ section of a Paris department store and I have practically not stopped writing since. I will find the time to type these pages up on a computer of course, because that is key to the next part of writing, which is editing and publication. But until that moment I will just continue to enjoy the act of writing, watching the ink flow onto the page. I thank Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison for not only being brilliant writers, but for having the much-needed and -appreciated ability to share their process with others.

I would love to hear about your own writing process; please tell me about it in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “A hand-written confession

  1. Ed I did not have a pleasant experience when I first started learning how to write with old fashioned pen and ink in primary school. I was the last in the class to learn how to read and write. My preoccupations were elsewhere. I could draw quite easily, but putting feelings and impressions into words was laboured writing. I had to change so many words and cross out so many sentences I could hardly read the final version. So I gave up writing until the computer word processor came along and set me free to move words, sentences and paragraphs around on the page to my heart’s content and rewrite endless gibberish. I do however keep multiple notebooks in which I write in HB pencil words and sentences at random.

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    1. Thank you for this, Ursula. The word processing unit has done wonders for many people. I am saying the reverse: I have always felt a little out of touch with an inability to write creatively on the computer when I have seen so many people in Starbucks bash out oodles on their keyboard… Reading, for example, that Toni Morrison wrote everything with a pencil before typing reassured me in my personal conviction to write by hand. Thank you for your comment 🙂

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