Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The act of writing

My friend Damien recently wondered about the link between the process and the craft of writing, and asked if we have made writing too easy. His essay made me consider one of the parts of writing that I don't normally think about very often (unless my wrist and shoulder are aching), which is the physical act of writing itself.

In the patristic and medieval period, it was not necessary to physically write a text in order to be considered its author. In fact, because the physical act of writing was seen as a labor, even those who were literate in the modern sense (able to read and physically write) would have scribes write down the words that they dictated. This is a cultural tradition that has had predictably gendered fall out: the authorship of texts written by men, such as Thomas Aquinas, who dictated to scribes, has not been called into question, whereas the authorship of texts written by women, such as Margery Kempe, who also dictated her writing, has constantly been challenged. But that is a rant for another day. My point is, for a significant chunk of time in Western history, being an author and a writer was not the same thing.

Now, of course, we use author and writer interchangeably. But the physical act of writing is still an interesting one to consider. I handwrite nearly all of my projects. I draft by hand, and when I edit, I print out a hard copy, and edit by hand. A large part of this is because writing by hand allows me to think more clearly and more carefully about what I am writing. I notice not just the ideas, but the words that I am using to convey them. I am more aware of context, and of the rhythm and sound of the text on the page when I actually see the text on a page, rather than on a screen. The only time (other than something like blog entries) that I compose directly on computer screen is when I don't want to think too closely about what I am writing in the first draft - if I know a scene will be particularly painful or difficult to write, and I don't want to let myself back away from writing it.

But I also handwrite because I like the physical work of doing so. The color of the words on the page is important to me, and so I use fountain pens because I can choose from a variety of colors of ink. My friends have given me pens and notebooks, and so sometimes I will choose to work with one of those, because it is a quiet reminder that people believe in what I am doing, and support the art that I am creating. And it is a reminder that writing is work, something that deserves to be taken seriously.

I'm not saying that mine is the best or only way to create. Far from it.  Modern technology has given us a plethora of options and the best way to write is the way that most helps you put words on the page.


  1. My handwriting is horrendous, and always has been. Also, whenever I write, generally my mind is racing ahead so fast, I can't manage to scribble the words down fast enough to make any sense.

    So, I type. I use my trusty Mac laptop and Scrivener, and I've never looked back.

    I do sometimes print out and edit by hand, because that can be more convenient. I keep a notebook that is handwritten, but if you can manage to decipher the hieroglyphics that reside within it, you're doing better than me. And I wrote them all!

  2. I really wanted to be able to use Scrivener. I think it's great, but it just doesn't work for the way I need to write. I'm a bit jealous of those who can use it.

    Luckily, I can almost always read my own handwriting. And when I can't, well, it's a first round edit.