It’s been a while since I’ve thoughtlessly and carelessly psychoanalyzed our readers, so this article over at First Things about the phenomenology-of-the-hand was just the motivation needed. In it, Marc Bauerlein protests the habit of writing and editing on modern word processors and longs for the discipline and craft of writing by hand, particularly in cursive.
It’s certainly true that the physical tools we use shape our writing. In fact, the change goes much deeper. It changes the way we think. I noticed this phenomenon in myself when I first learned to type. At first, I would still need to write out my thoughts and then I would copy them into the word processor. Now that I’ve all but abandoned writing by hand, it’s the other way round. If I want to write a letter to a friend, I find myself typing it first and then copying the composition longhand. I can no longer “think” in long-hand. Nicholas Carr examines this phenomenon in his book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. In it, he tells an anecdote about Nietzsche, who moved from long-form to a kind of typewriter. Soon after, he noticed that his writing style had changed, saying, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” We have to be aware that, if we choose to abandon the discipline of penmanship, we’ve lost something.
That said, I think Bauerlein protests a bit too much. Yes, it’s true that our tools change and limit us in unexpected ways, and learning to write in cursive seems to have beneficial effects that would be a shame to lose, but at the same time tools are tools. We could just as easily argue that the invention of the pen and paper destroyed our ability to memorize. Every time we extend our abilities with a new tool, we also end up limiting some other ability. The whole question isn’t about the ideal medium in which to compose, but rather a question of which choice are we willing to make and which limitation are we willing to accept.
I suspect that our readers are partial to all sorts of different ways of writing. Here’s what I think your choice says about you.
You are Nietzsche. You love your Danish-made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball with its beautiful golden pincushion and fifty-two keys set up in a scientifically devised concentric circle designed for the most efficient writing. Like clockwork, you produce challenging aphorisms and odes to your writing ball. As Nietzsche enthused, “The writing ball is a thing like me: made of iron.” Your idiom is similar to that of a telegraph machine, but the convenience of the device is too much to resist.
You are a Marxist. You believe that each item used by man must not lead to alienation through labor, and clearly Microsoft Word is the most alienating invention of all time, and yet you have a commitment to industrialism and efficiency. Either that, or your economic commitments have left you unable to afford a computing device. Best case scenario is you turn into Hemingway, a sort of romantic socialist of the south seas, and find great satisfaction in the tactile process of writing and subsequently blossom into a master of a unique writing style. Worst case? You drink a shockingly large number of mimosas and are surrounded by cats. I’m concerned about your Bloody Mary intake.
You are a sentimentalist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re probably the one friend who remembers birthdays and writes lovely notes in cards and mails them in the actual mail. You love prose and the tangible way in which it is shaped on a page. You are probably doing most of your writing while in bed wearing an old dressing gown and hopefully have the bed pulled up near a roaring fire so you can see more clearly because, obviously, you reject the modernist innovation of electricity and the dehumanizing effects of overhead lighting. Just don’t lie on your stomach while writing in bed. James Joyce did that and we all know how his work turned out to be essentially incomprehensible. I will say this in all seriousness – you are most certainly are not left-handed.
I don’t want to get too personal, but you need to re-think your life and make a clean break from going to Starbucks every day.
You are a dreamer. Nabakov was said to do this so that he could write individual scenes non-sequentially and then arrange them into a narrative arc later. Wallace Stevens had a similar method that he preferred because he could compose snippets of poetry while on a walk. I imagine that index card devotees have them stuffed in the inner pocket of their second-hand tweed jackets and they’re a delightful jumble of random thoughts. They’re epiphanies in 3×5.
Color coded paper and pen
You are an aesthete. Like Dumas, you will write fiction only on blue paper, poetry on yellow paper, and non-fiction on pink. Why? Beauty for beauty’s sake. What more reason is needed? If your writing looks good, it will read good. Virginia Woolf used a similar approach but in relation to ink. I imagine her with one of those cool pens that’s loaded with five different colors of ink and uses a different one depending on which button you push
On a Scroll
You are a hipster maniac. You hand-roast single origin coffee beans out back by the chicken coop in the garbage drum you’ve converted into a roaster. Like Kerouac, you hate editing and prefer to let your work of genius speak for itself when you dump a ten foot long scroll on your publisher’s desk in a pique of eccentricity. Let someone else edit it…if they dare to mess with genius. You don’t like to have your style cramped and want to let your muse roam free. If anyone does try to edit it, you might want to rehearse the rage you’ll fall into ahead of time to be sure it’s properly shocking.