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Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen

30 September 2012

From author Mark Helprin in The Wall Street Journal:

 Should you be insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane, here are some suggestions.

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire) and thanks to Barb for the tip.

Writing Advice, Writing Tools

29 Comments to “Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen”

  1. God, what b*******. What works is to sit your butt down somewhere and write. A cafe? Your home office? The dining room table? It doesn’t matter. As far as the supposed “magic” of a pen, again. BS. Getting the words down, THAT is the magic. You do it however works for you.

    • Highly agree. This guy is, somehow, more pretentious than the moleskine-toting café writer…because, every once in a while, those moleskines get filled up. A C-note says he wrote this article on a computer, and took his pen-only conclusion from its quality.

      While I don’t use a “pen”, I do carry my tablet to the coffeehouse or pub to write, for the express purpose of: that they will give me whichever magical creativity elixir I’ve decided I need that day.

    • Amen. I am sick unto nausea of the “magic of the pen.” What next, a quill, so you can think about your next sentence as you hand-sharpen your nib? How about chiseling into rocks? That’ll make you think five times before you commit a word!

      Yeah, sometimes using a different tool can get past a roadblock. Fine. But ENOUGH WITH THE GODSBLIGHTED MAGIC PEN! Unless it’s a purple crayon that draws things that come to life, I don’ wanna hear it anymore!

    • True dat. Work where you’re comfortable and write well. That could be on the back of a tractor, or it could be in a porta pottie.

      Remember, if it’s stupid but works, it isn’t stupid.

  2. So did Mr. Helprin send this article into the WSJ by carrier pigeon?

  3. While the idea of writing novel length fiction with a pen is a bit, uh, daunting, I do think there is a touch of magic in handwriting. I often resort to pen and paper when I’m stuck in a story and have trouble moving forward. The pen has a way of clearing a logjam of thoughts and setting them to order.

    I agree with Mark Helprin, when he says, writing with a pen is “a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency” and “helps you think and feel.”

    (That said, you’ll tearing my laptop from my cold, dead fingers. :-))

    • EC Sheedy–well, yes, despite what I’ve written below, I DO still often make story notes, at the beginning of the process, by hand. That’s when my thoughts are too incoherent for anything resembling an outline (let alone chapters). At the point where I’m writing questions, scattered words, drawing arrows to guess about or ponder the relationships between characters and events, or events and backstory, etc… Yes, I doodle with a pen during that process.

      But based on having written three novels by hand (see below), if I had to do that again… I would definitly turn to highway robbery to get my hands on a computer.

  4. I wrote my first two published novels (and also a third that never sold) by hand. Penned them into spiral notebooks. Then typed the final drafts on a manual (not electric — manual) typewriter.

    I did it because that’s what I had available, and if you want to write, you write — no matter what.

    But it was physically exhausting, logistically cumbersome, and artistically limiting. As far as I was concerned, once it was typed, it was written in STONE, because revising a scene after that would have meant retyping the whole damn book, which took FOREVER, on a machine which made my fingers hurt–a LOT. Rewriting by pen was cumbersome, since it involved lots of arrows, and labelling inserts “A, “B,” and “C,” (or “1,” “2,” etc.)–and since I am a much better rewriter than writer, working on my handwritten books invariably meant flipping constantly (I mean CONSTNATLY) back and forth through my notebooks in search of insert “Z-27” or constantly rotating my notebooks graadually sideways to read the revisions I’d written along the margins, etc.

    I also killed (or damaged) nerves in my arm by having that pen pressed between my thumb and index fingers for hours a day, every day, most of that year. (Though, in truth, this came in handy. When learning painfully knee-buckling pressure points in martial arts a decade later, none of them ever works on my right arm, in which my pen-writing had destroyed some of the feeling.)

    Word processing is oh-so-much easier a format for writing, in oh-so-many ways, and I tend to suspect that anyone who romanticizes writing by hand either has never done it, or writes very short things which s/he assumes are brilliant gems of muse-blessed genius as-is that need no further work.

    • (Having said that… Okay, yes, I think bestseller Susan Wiggs, dozens of hefty books into her career, still writes her first drafts by hand. I know she did this for years, anyhow–10 pages a day, most days of the week, by hand.)

    • Writing by hand has also always been painful for me, and the truth is, I wouldn’t write regularly without a keyboard. It just would not happen. I realize some people really love writing by hand. Since I was a child, I have loathed it.

      Plus, I believe that the process is spiritual because of the words created, not the process by which they are wrought.

      • I have loathed it too. I have a huge knot on my finger of permanent scar tissue from handwriting. We got a computer in 1982 and I haven’t handwritten an essay since if I could help it. My daughter (21) hand writes because she enjoys it sometimes, but my sons not at all. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a person younger than 20 who thinks handwriting a book would ever be a great idea.

        • I hate writing by hand, it hurts my hands.


          Sometimes I wonder if I am creative in a different way when I write on paper. I don’t, but I sort of worry I’m missing something.

          • I think we are only limited by our own minds and beliefs. There can’t actually be physiological reasons for being less creative on a keyboard. I believe Mr. Helprin is limited on a keyboard simply because believes he is supposed to be. He likes writing by hand, so he’s decided that’s made him more creative than those who don’t.

            His logic is also marred by the fact that there are a lot more reasons that simple efficiency for using a computer. We already touched on the physical, but there’s also the fact that on computers and keyboards we see the printed word come alive before our eyes. I love books, and I love seeing words literally turn into books. Handwriting doesn’t give me that until it’s retyped. A more thoughtful consideration would have noticed that.

  5. I want to mine brilliant uncut gems of muse-blessed genius from the æther of creativity.

  6. Google is my friend.
    So are dictionary.com and thesaurus.com.
    When my DSL is out, I freak. I call my provider “You know I’m trying to WORK here!”

  7. Darn. I was all set to fly to Paris. Now I’ll have to re-think it.

    Which is more important? Sitting in a cafe, drinking things out of tiny cups, while I chew on the tip of my pen and look like I am creating the most profound, thought-provoking and beautiful literature of the century?

    Or actually writing something.

    I don’t know. It’s a toss up.

    As for the article, I like it. He’s a literary sort, and he’s saying: don’t choose the cafe, find things that will help you write, and take your time.

    I agree. Except maybe the cafe part.

  8. I wrote a novel by hand when I was 18 (did not have a computer) .

    Not an experience I would choose to repeat.

    The cramps are not nice.

  9. Helprin misses the whole point of writing in a cafe. It saves hours of writing time in my week to have someone else make the coffee.

  10. “Never write in a café, especially in Europe.”

    What of those of us who actually live here? Should we fly to the US to write in a Starbuck’s rather than writing in our own cafés?

    That said, I don’t write in cafés all that often, though I have written in a café in occasion. And while I sometimes write by hand (and sometimes even in a Moleskine), mostly when there is nothing electronic nearby, I vastly prefer the computer.

    Finally, Helprin does sound exactly like the sort of elitist he decries.

  11. I wrote my first novel – 169,000 words – with a pen. It worked well for me. Seemed to derail my inner critical voice (which was loud at the time), but I don’t plan to do it again. Typing it into a computer afterward took forever. In fact, it took all one summer! And made me allergic to even the idea of doing it again for anything longer than a short story.

    I do brainstorm and jot notes and write prelim outlines with a pen. I’ll even write the odd scene with a pen. But once the story gels in my mind enough to start the first draft, I’m on the computer!

  12. Mark Helprin’s passage reminds me of John Updike’s citing this passage in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Green Hills of Africa, “Writers in New York are like all angleworms in a bottle, deriving nourishment from each other and the glass.” as the reason he abandoned New York City to write his novels in Connecticut.

    I find I write, after several months, better somewhere else, sometimes with a pen (Lamer’s fountain), sometimes a MacIntosh. Someday I may write well in Paris with a Levenger pencil. We’ll see.

    I follow Gail Sher’s admonition in “One Continuous Mistake.” We all have proclivities that emerge over months and years of practice (p.99, the Penguin Arkana edition).

    Whatever is Mark Helprin fussing about? We find what works for us. Give it a break.

  13. I am an artist. If I’m putting pen to paper, I much prefer it be in the name of a drawing.

    That said, there are two reasons I use pen (or pencil) and paper to write:
    – Brainstorming
    – No computer access

    Though I can write by hand at roughly the same pace as typing (though since my handwriting is terrible it means squinting as I translate to digital text later), I tend to daydream more, have a lot more (???) (CHAR 1) [LOCATION] notations, and I only get a few hundred words in before my hand starts cramping and I have to take breaks.

    If I’m in Europe (as I hope to be sometime in the next few years, since I miss it), I’m taking a lovely notebook with me with blank and/or blank+lined paper so I can make a travel sketchbook. And if I want to sit in a cafe while I do this and people watch, I’m no more pretentious than the person sitting at the next table trying to decide if a reference to angry lesbians would enhance or detract from their poetry, the person two tables over sneering at the poet, or the local trying to decide if they have time to grab a drink after work before their dinner meeting.

    I play with all my tools as it amuses me to use them or when I need them. If a tool works for someone, I try not to sneer at them for using it exclusively. I just hope they’ve tried others instead of settling on one because of what other people would think of them.

  14. Um…about this Mark Helprin geezer. Is he noted for being a bit of a wind-up merchant?

    Because I’m not entirely sure that that article is entirely serious.

  15. Some of us write in cafes (or libraries, or shopping-mall food courts) just to get out of the apartment once in a while.

    And I don’t like writing by hand very much just because I know I’ll have to type my not-always-legible notes into my computer anyway.

  16. . . . So this poseur walks into a Left Bank cafe, and yells at all the other poseurs, ‘You’re doing it wrong!’

    I almost hope Helprin is being serious, because that would make a really lousy joke.

  17. In the previous millennium, I used a notebook (the dead tree kind) to write novels and plays because laptops weren’t a viable option back then and I needed to kill time when I finished my classwork in middle-school and high school. In middle school I used my electric Smith-Corona to transcribe, and I pondered how professional writers revised their books. Did they retype entire pages? What if you cut 3/4 of text spanning two pages? Did you have to keep retyping pages until the text lined up again? Revisions were my prime motivation for having a computer.

    In high school we bought a desktop computer. I discovered my brain is attached to my keyboard via my hands, and I hate writing any other way anymore. I view long-hand writing as a last resort now. It slows me down. I take notes long hand, but if I’m doing it in public its because I’m redeeming the time I’m forced to spend away from my desk. Serious writing requires a keyboard. I envy people who can dictate a story if they have to.

    PS — what is the big deal about moleskine? I’ve heard of those notebooks, but they’re not my style and they never seemed suited for any purpose I’ve ever had for a notebook. They look flimsy. When I did write longhand, I had to use notebooks that came with a hard cover, or the kind with the vinyl cover and pockets (the kind you can take the notebook out of and reuse again with a different notebook). Otherwise the cover and first few pages might fall off after I’d used the notebook for a while.

    • They’re durable, but light.

      I go through a lot of blank books. I use them both for journaling and for brainstorming about stories. I’ve resisted buying a Moleskine, because they’re a lot more expensive than most blank books.

      Recently I needed to travel and needed a blank book to take with me. I sprang for a Moleskine, because they’re so light. That is an issue when I’m toting laptop and carry-on through airports. In the using of said Moleskine, I discovered their durability. Most blank books are much the worse for wear when I’m done with them, and some are shedding front pages. None would handle a lot of flipping through later to find information within. (Fortunately, I’m usually done once I reach the last page and fill it.)

      The Moleskine stood up to use with virtually no wear and tear. Since it has important notes about indie publishing (from the workshop I traveled to), I’ve been referring to it frequently and will likely do so on into the indefinite future. I doubt it will fall apart, despite heavy use. One other benefit: it lies flat when open.

      A long answer . . . but I now see why writers like them. And I also understand why they’re pricey.

  18. I write on a computer at a walking desk and get a thousand words a mile. Keyboard and computer is the only way I can do that.

    Interesting on all the Hemingway notes .. a couple of days ago I pulled out an old copy of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” to flip through and then looked it up on Wikipedia finding: “The novel was finished in July 1940 and published in October” so how did the traditional publishers move from getting the book out that quickly to the often repeated 18 months today?

    Of course, all three books in my recently completed trilogy published over the weekend and in twelve hours they were available for customers to purchase. Maybe two weeks if you count the return trip from editing.

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