Saturday, January 29, 2011

not burning to put pen to paper

The letter carrier & the UPS person have been dropping off a steady stream of books over the past few days. I finally decided to get serious about this book of biography I've been brooding over for the past four years, so I went carefully thru the "works cited" list of Ray Monk's latest brilliant article on biography (Monk is the author of a formidably good biography of Wittgenstein, then a not-so-well-reviewed life of Bertrand Russell, & now he seems to be writing the definitive book on philosophical biography; I can't wait), jotted down every book that seemed significant, and went to the Amazon Marketplace and ordered the lot. I suspect I've perhaps doubled my (already significant) collection of books on biography – but that doesn't mean an awful lot, I'm afraid: the corpus of this critical discussion probably occupies less than a shelf and a half – maybe half the space of my Ruskin set.
A strange, nostalgic feeling lately: working on a largish essay, I found myself painfully blocked. Now I don't believe in writer's block, or at least I've never suffered it significantly. But I found it very difficult to tackle this thing as a Word document. I tried all the old tricks – changed the font, messed with the spacing, etc – but it still remained dumb and obdurate and there, unwilling to be changed or added to. So I printed out the thing and sat down with my books, a yellow legal pad, and a pen, & suddenly found myself writing again.

I've been a late adopter of the direct-to-keyboard writing style. When I was an undergraduate, I would think a bit about a paper assignment the week before it was due; two nights before, I would sit down in the smoking lounge of my dorm with a spiral notebook and write the thing, then I'd go to bed; the night before it was due, I'd type my manuscript (on a typewriter), editing as I went. Then I'd turn it in and await my A, which was usually forthcoming. (Less than A's were for when I got lazy in thinking or analysis – never, to my recollection, for grammar or structure: I always seemed to be able to hear how a sentence or an argument ought to sound.) It was my professor Tom Gardner who put me onto the legal pad – something very attractive about that yellow paper, I always thought when I'd visit him in his office & see his latest article emerging.

And that was my MO for years & years. My guess is that 75 - 80% of The Poem of a Life was drafted on yellow legal pads, footnotes crowded into the left margin. (You wanna see? I still have a two-inch block of yellow drafts stacked somewhere in my closet.)* I'd revise, sometimes heavily, on the keyboard, tho I preferred to mark up printouts and key in revisions. Writing by hand was an extra step, I told myself, and it gave me an ugly pen-rest callous on my middle finger, but it made me write slower than I could type, which meant I was thinking harder as I wrote; and perforce it made me revise at least once, between manuscript and word processing document.

But even as I was finishing that book, I was weaning myself from the legal pad, forcing myself to compose directly to keyboard. Most of the prose I've written since then has been directly keyed in**; and you know, I don't think my writing has suffered from it. I think my adherence for so long to handwriting was in some sense simple superstition or habit, which I've managed finally to break.

But getting back to the legal pad & the pen – a fountain pen, always, so I can savor that really very sexy sensation of the nib moving across the field of the paper, leaving its gleaming trails – has been fun in a way that I think transcends nostalgia. I don't feel like I'm making a call on a rotary dial phone, slumming in some kind of pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-cool-techno-kid wildlife preserve. I feel rather like I've shifted gears for a while; still getting there, just maybe a little more (salubriously?) slowly.

*I believe the SF writer Neal Stephenson, who writes books larger than Boswell, writes this way – fountain pen drafts, marked-up printouts.
** Try as I might, I simply can't compose poetry on a keyboard, either a typewriter or a computer. I kinda envy those who can. Call me coelocanth.


tyrone said...

yep--I too type prose on the computer but write poetry in journals by hand.

undine said...

My fountain pen mostly gets to mark up the printouts these days, but when I get stuck, it's back to yellow pads and longhand.

Norman Finkelstein said...

I had very similar habits, Mark. Used yellow legal pads for years, would type the drafts, or later, print them out, and do a final revision. Now I write most of my prose directly into the computer. And like Ty, I still write poetry by hand in a notebook, and then put it on the screen to test the lineation and so on.