Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guest in Progress: Richard Goodman

Richard Goodman is one of my favorite correspondents. He always has something interesting to say, and today’s post is no exception. (You might also want to check out his most recent, an amusingly bitter account of the “day in the life of a writer.”)

As for now, eye your computer with suspicion:

By Richard Goodman

I write in longhand—by choice.

No, it’s not because I can’t afford a computer. I have a computer. And I use it. But whatever I write, I write first in longhand.

Why? Well, let me count the ways. First, there is a sense of building, of crafting, that comes from writing in longhand. When you look back at a page you’ve written, you’re looking at something you’ve built. There it is: a page of words and sentences you have made with your own hand. When you look at a page filled with your own handwriting, you can say, “I make words. I build paragraphs. I construct stories—by hand. My stories and essays are handmade.”

Practically speaking, writing with a pen or pencil is still the most versatile and portable form of composition. All you need is pen and paper. There are laptops, of course, but outlets aren’t always available, and a battery’s power is finite. Drop me into the forest with a pen and a small notepad, and I can write away. All Abraham Lincoln needed was the back of an envelope to compose one of the most famous speeches in history. (Not that I’m comparing myself with Abe.) The most extreme example of this on-the-spot ingenuity I can think of is the case of Jean Genet. Denied writing paper while he was in jail, he wrote an entire novel on toilet paper. Something to remember if you’re ever sent up the river. Writers have employed a carnival-like array of surfaces when the need calls—the inside of matchbooks, bookmarks, calling cards, drink coasters (remember where writers congregate), the ever-handy paper napkin, even the palms of their hands. That would make an interesting museum exhibit.

I also think words cost you more when you write them out in longhand. They cost you more in terms of psychic energy and simple work than when you use a computer. I think, then, you’re less likely to be profligate. I think you’re more likely to be aware of what you’re writing down, because you’re aware of the personal effort. So when you use a pen or pencil, it can make you more committed to a word, or to a phrase. When you use a computer to compose the act is hidden. Something occurs between your fingers hitting the keys and the words appearing on the page that you can’t see, or feel. You are somewhat disengaged. Who is actually putting those words on the page? Me? Compare this to using a manual typewriter, when you actually slap the words onto the page.

I think, too, that if you’re susceptible to the influence of tradition—and I am—writing in longhand can link you to writers of the past computers never can. You know that Henry James sat with a pen in hand just like you, and he wrote words on a page. Henry James did not use a computer. Neither did Shakespeare, now that we’re naming names. Before the invention of the typewriter, all writers wrote with a pen. So, pick your hero. You’re sitting there with your pen poised—like Proust in his cork-lined room; like Edith Wharton sitting in her bed at The Mount; like Pablo Neruda looking at the ocean from his study on Isla Negra.

There is also the sense of tiredness that comes uniquely with writing in longhand. When I’m through writing for the day, my hand is weak. I’ve given it a workout. Just as my arms and back would be tired after a long morning gardening, to return to that fertile analogy. So in addition to wracking my brain, I get the purely physical sense of exhaustion. And there is nothing like physical exhaustion from honest physical labor. Writing is already an abstract enough pursuit, with many people still seeing it as a dubious profession—not really work. So, when you walk away from the table with a hand that’s weary, it helps connect your calling with labor. Somehow, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome just doesn’t have the same effect.

I know Hemingway used a pencil at least some of the time, because he says so. In A Moveable Feast, he writes, “The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.” Of course the American writer most closely associated with pencils is Thoreau, who actually made them, and expertly, too.

One disadvantage of using either a pen or pencil, is, I suppose, that sometimes the brain is racing too fast for the hand to keep up, à la Hemingway. When that happens, my handwriting starts to turn into strange clipped symbols, portions of words, endings left off, so that it all resembles a secret journal code, something out of Pepys or Gladstone. Sometimes, I can’t even decipher it myself. This is not a unique problem, nor has it ever been. I think the story goes that Balzac’s hand was so bad—and you can find examples of it on-line—it was nearly impossible to decipher his manuscript. Typesetters refused to work more than an hour at a time on his work. I believe they called it “Balzac time.” My problem has been assuaged somewhat because lately my mind seems to be slowing down considerably, and so my hand has no trouble keeping pace.

Children still learn to write letter by letter with their pens or pencils. I hope they always will. One of the great prideful moments a child has is cracking the code of script, making the leap between printing and cursive writing. It’s one of the first great leaps of independence for them and one of the first times they can have something that is uniquely theirs. The feeling of power and accomplishment of this leap I think remains deep within all of us. The faintest doses of this pride are released when we write by hand, even when we are fully grown. Somewhere, we think, “Look: I did this, and nobody else could.”

About: Richard Goodman [] is the author of The Soul of Creative Writing, which is due out in paperback in early March. He is also the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France; He has written for a wide variety of journals, newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Harvard Review [], Creative Nonfiction, Vanity Fair, The Writer's Chronicle, and The Michigan Quarterly Review. He teaches at Spalding University's brief residency MFA in Writing program []. ; He is a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop [].


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.