Write On Wednesday: Writing By Hand

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

stock-footage-close-up-hand-writing-in-diaryNovelist Mary Gordon wrote these words (presumably by hand) in her essay Putting Pen to Paper, But Not Just Any Pen or Just Any PaperShe writes of how she primes the well of her own imagination by copying out (by hand) the words of writers she admires. She tells of an elaborate system of notebooks she has kept over the years, “small soft-covered one, confectionary coloreds ones, square red-covered and long canary yellow ones,” into which are delegated  the different morsels of thought.

And she writes of her pen, that most important of tools for the hand-writing writer.  It is a Waterman’s, she says, “black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon.”

Dare I say there is not a writer alive who doesn’t thrill at these words, this intimate discussion of pens and paper? What was once the bare stock of our trade, their romance is now enhanced even further by the sad fact that they have all too often been forsaken for the glare of a computer screen and the clickety-clack of a wireless keyboard.

Like most writers, I have notebooks and pens galore. There are flimsy, cheap spiral notebooks such as I used in junior high school, the kind that cost ten cents each at the Back-to-School sales in August. There  are pretty soft-covered journals embossed with arty pictures and life-affirming slogans. There are leather bound books which contain only the most profound of words, those first penned by my favorite authors, and that I’ve copied out laboriously in my own handwriting, hoping against hope that a smidgen of their genius will impart itself upon me.

Pens? Yes, I have those too, although I’m not as finicky about pens as Ms. Gordon purports to be. I do have a Waterman’s pen, a gift from a favorite uncle who always seemed to divine the things I most coveted but would never buy for myself. Waterman pens. Coach purses and gloves. Waterford crystal paperweights and letter openers.

How I miss that man.

But I’m happy enough to write with a medium black Bic Ultra, or a fine tipped Pentel R.S.V.P. I confess to a newly developed a fondness for the Pilot G-2 (07) after accidentally walking off with one from a restaurant.

It is the physical act of writing itself that is so important, Gordon says, and I believe this to be true. The taking up of pen and putting it to paper seems akin to priming the pump, to blowing air through the billows of the pipe organ, to the singers diaphragmatic breath. What is most interesting to me is what Gordon writes to start her day  –  “copying out paragraphs whose heft and cadence she can learn from.”  Somewhat wistfully she says that “it is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before.”

It may sound silly, but it comforts me to know that while I’m sitting here in my small corner of the writer’s world, scratching away in one notebook or another, Mary Gordon is doing the very same thing.

Just a couple of writers, writing by hand.

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8 thoughts on “Write On Wednesday: Writing By Hand

  1. What a great idea! Even if you don’t follow this as a regular discipline, it would be a wonderful way to deal with blank page syndrome: if, when you sit down to write, nothing comes to you, copy out a passage or two from a writer you love or admire. Chances are good the exercise will stimulate some idea to write about, and if not, you’ve had some good work passing through your brain and into your hand.

  2. I don’t write by hand as much as I used to… and now I’m wondering why not? Pen to paper cures writer’s block every time. I’m more honest, and I look back and am often surprised — in a good way — by what has landed on the page.

  3. Lovely post Becca.I write my three pages every single morning. I have stacks and stacks of paper attesting to years of this habit.
    Sometimes it feels rather mundane and diary-like but there are other days when I make discoveries that can only come through the act of scratching at the page.
    I love my computer and do most of my writing on it, but every morning I start with the physical act of pen in hand.
    There is something different and necessary about the physiciality of writing. And yes, I love knowing I have company…

    • I’ve amassed quite a collection of paper with this habit. I don’t know what will become of it when I die! Perhaps I need a literary executor…

  4. I carry a notebook, and I’ll do outlines or keyword lists and such by hand, but writing by hand? Not for me. For one thing, I can’t keep up with my thoughts. For another, I’m just not one who’s particularly enamoured of moleskin journals, fancy pens and such. They’re very nice, but I’m more concerned with the product than the process.

    And besides – here comes the biggie! – after 23 years of varnishing and the accumulation of 66 years over all, it’s physically much easier to use a computer keyboard. When your hands are stiff and your knuckles hurt, when cramps or just fatigue set it, I often find myself focusing on the pain rather than the writing.

    I don’t think there’s anything at all “necessary” about hand-writing. Some love it, and I’m glad it works for them. But I don’t think I’m lacking anything at all because I don’t engage in the practice.

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