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Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand

23 February 2013

From author Mary Gordon on Brain Pickings:

There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’

It’s a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the world’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involves notebooks and pens. I write 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.

. . . .

So what do I do after I’ve played with my pen and notebooks like a time-killing kindergartner? Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Patricia for the tip.

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16 Comments to “Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand”

  1. Instead of reading Proust in the morning, I come here. :)

    The article also mentioned Mary Gordon as belonging to “the cult of the notebook”. While I can’t imagine choosing to write an entire book out by hand, I’ve always loved the idea of writing in fancy notebooks. Trouble is, the thought of marring them with crossed out words and misspellings scares me to death, so I stick to cheap 200-page notebooks. :D

    I write by hand on occasion when I’m stuck and need to change things up, or I happen to be somewhere without access to a keyboard. (And, unlike Mary Gordon, I prefer colorful ink.) The writing process is not as fast as when I’m typing, but it does seem to tap into a slightly different section of my mind. I’ve noticed my paragraphs tend to be longer, for one. It allows me to think a little more about what I’m writing…until I hit flow stage and can’t scrawl everything across the page fast enough. :D

    The only downside (aside from the occasional hand cramp) is that everything then has to be typed up and put into the computer. I’ve thought about using a tablet to combine the tactile sensations of holding a pen with the convenience of the digital world, but I’m not entirely sure how well handwriting-recognition software will handle my…er…brand of handwriting. :D

  2. I’ve been doing this recently due to a back injury, and I’ve discovered that writing by hand (in cheap spiral notebooks with a super-glide pen) circumvents my perfectionism. On a word processor I’m much more likely to go back and edit instead of forging ahead with a first draft. I’ll see what happens when it’s time to transfer pen to pixels. I hope I get a revising revelation too!

  3. There is something very delicious about writing by hand. My words become a physical reflection of myself. Every loop and cross, every slope and crevice laugh back at me like a child at play. My words and thoughts are more deliberate and more creative. I am not so much writing as painting my stories into being. After a while, my wrist aches with an exquisite pain, and I smile, knowing that such pain is the echo of a deeper connection to myself, something I have never gotten when writing in a computer.

  4. It is always funny to me that there are so many different ways that people write. I always find that handwriting is so slow it feels a bit like writing through syrup.

    I’ve tried a lot of different computer technologies for writing and it still comes down to a text editor with a very simple markup. At the moment I am using vim and markdown because it allows you to navigate without the mouse, which means that it is much faster.

    I know a lot of people use word, but I don’t really like to have to fight my computer. I prefer the simplicity of text. I only want to write when I am writing.

  5. About 6 years ago, I changed my writing process. I hand write almost everything now before I type it up. As mentioned above, it eliminates the perfectionism of typing. Plus, I’m an “adder-inner” when it comes to writing. I don’t just cover the page, I go back up and add more things in the margins and at the top. I’ll put in stars to link to sections later that need to be put in.

    And when something really, truly sucks, I feel great joy physically ripping the pages out and tearing them up before I start again from scratch.

    I can’t write in fancy notebooks either. I write on cheap legal pads (albeit in fancy covers) and with good fountain pens.

    When I type my drafts up, I will often do some level of rewrite. It depends on the draft — usually between 70-98% of what’s in the hand draft makes it into the typed draft. As a result, that typed draft is very clean, and I don’t need a lot of revision after that.

    It means my word production rate is about 500 words per hour — I can hand write about 1000 words per hour, and type even faster, but put together, it averages out to about 500 WPH. But again, it’s a clean draft by the time I’m finished, and I need very little rework after that — usually just the “make it not broken” things.

  6. The “thingness” of paper and pen? What the heck does that have to do with writing? I still wouldn’t be a writer if I depended on paper in any form, even on a typewriter. Handwriting does nothing but slow me down and leave me with material that I have to decipher and transfer to the computer. There are few things in life I’ve been so glad to give up as paper and pen.

    • If the entire power grid of the world suddenly stopped working for an indefinite period of time, would you really stop writing? I would write my little heart out with crayons on napkins if I had to or carve my stories on pieces of driftwood.

      Sure, handwriting is slower than typing on a keyboard, but I find that in an age when more and more writers feel obligated to pound out three to four books a year, perhaps slowing down every now and then would do one a world of good.

      • If I had to write with crayons I would, but writing is more than just putting down words on paper or a screen, or about speed. Finding the right program made the difference between getting stories and novels finished, and thrashing around trying to keep my work organized.

        I don’t feel obligated to write any specific number of works per year, and I’m not aware that computers make that obligatory.

        • I apologize, Catana. I didn’t mean for the second part to be directed at you personally. It was just a general lamentation on how many writers seem to use the computer as a way to bulldoze their way through multiple books a year simply because it is such an expedient method. I didn’t mean to imply that you were one of them.

          I have known a few writers who felt like failures if they didn’t write at least four whole books a year. For them, it was all about quantity, and less about quality. Not a great mind-set to get into.

          Needless to say, they are not successfully published authors, yet.

  7. I’ve, thus far, written in…

    • TextEdit
    • Word (once I finish beating it into submission, it obeys quite well), my workhorse. I will never upgrade if I can possibly avoid it; beating new versions of Word into submission is a pain.
    • Pages
    • Pages on the iPad, usually using the screeboard.
    • Pages on the iPhone (I don’t recommend it, as the “page” is larger than the screen and thus typing causes the area-viewed to scroll around… But it might benefit some people’s Process, by virtue of being unable to see minor imperfections more than a few words back.)

    Oh, and little lined notebooks for when I didn’t have anything else with me. Writing drabbles on those is annoying as heck; counting the words by hand? Ewwww.

    Long ago, I wrote a short story — a long short story, but not quite novella — entirely by hand, in spiral notebooks, with big crossed out bits when necessary.

    Never. Again.

    Give me my laptop and a good word-processor, that I’ve tweaked to my preferred settings, rather than the messy, messy thing that is my handwriting.

  8. “For one thing it involves flesh, blood”

    You need a new pen.

  9. I wrote my novel Troll-magic using pen on paper. I found the blank paper less intimidating than the blank screen, and the business of driving the pen takes far less thought (for me) than typing. Also, like Jane George, I lose my inner critic.

    But typing all 169,000 words of the story into my computer took forever. So I weaned myself.

    I’ll still write the occasional scene by hand, especially story openings, where I need every advantage I can find. But the bulk of my writing happens at my laptop these days.

  10. My first book was wrote with pencil and paper… 90,000 words.

    Then I bought a computer. Showing my age again – in those days the word processor de jour was superwriter [I think it was a/the predecessor to word perfect - won't guarantee that, tho.]

    I would like to try dictating to a computer – speech to text thingy. Anyone tried that?

  11. I finally reached the point where my typing speed matches the speed of my thoughts as I write. And when I’m REALLY going strong, I can write between 1,000 and 1,500 words an hour. Can’t do that by hand.

    NFW will I ever write by hand again, unless the EMP kills all electronics.

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