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Why I Write by Hand
The benefits of thinking manually
When and where do you do your best thinking?
Many swear by the shower.
Or long walks.
Beethoven composed during long perambulations through Vienna. Coleridge and Wordsworth turned their conversations into poetry.
For me, the best thinking occurs when I’m wielding a pen.
(A physical pen with a good flow. Among fountain pens, I like the Kaweco Sport.)
What’s true of all of these methods is that the thinking is somehow physical, embodied.
Our minds respond to the movements of our limbs.
As any musician or artist can tell you, your hands are organs of cognition.
The figures your fingers trace make impressions on your mind.
I share this with you because, well, I need it right now.
I’ll be candid: I’ve been struggling recently with writing.
I have big themes I’m developing which excite me. But the more excited I am, the harder it is to put my focus on them.
What’s that passage from St. Paul?
“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”
I have my excuses. (We all do.) My three kids are all young and need lots of love. Giving them that love is the most important thing I can do. There’s no evil in that.
But there’s a peculiar plight that comes from writing on a computer. I feel it every day.
For some reason, it is frightening to face up to your highest aspiration, because the moment you (and here I mean I) look at it, you are crushed.
All this is to say, writing by hand is a means of soothing that metaphysical terror.
One word at a time, on a page.
Ink flows through the nib, leaves a durable mark, and instead of writing with my eyes I begin to write with my body, my ears, my inner voice. The writing feels fertile. If nothing else, it is fun.
I was struck recently that Sam Parr, an entrepreneur, shared that he learned how to write from copying works of writing he admired by hand.
This is an old method—he learned it from Benjamin Franklin—and long ago I remember doing it with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose.
I can’t say it had a transformation effect on my style, but what handwriting has done is to acquaint me with the internal music of my own mind.
One of the happiest writing memories I have of being in my own company is when, shortly after moving to Beijing, I set up in the un-air-conditioned workroom of the hotel where we were staying until we found an apartment.
The air smelled like pollution—a new odor to me then, which I came to know as well as the flavor of nutmeg or cinnamon—and I was happy.
For hours, I sat in that bare room, writing a book by hand.
Those were some of the most blissful days I’ve ever spent in my imagination.
While the majority of what I’ve written sits in bound notebooks, and has never been read by anyone, in many cases including me, the joy came from the act of creating it.
It was a function of life, like eating or walking.
After all, as much as our brains, our dextrous hands are what make us as human.
What About You?
Have you noticed that technology affects your writing?
What feels most natural, inspired, flowing?
Whatever medium you use, your thinking adheres to the technology.
I find that because I have to invest more physical effort in writing, I compose more in my mind.
Whereas when I type, because I can do it quickly, I edit with my eyes. I become a reader and a critic as much as a writer.
This makes the prose more polished, but the thinking less exploratory.
While the perennial problem with handwriting is transcription (especially when your script looks like mine, see below), the rise of reliable dictation software has been revolutionary.
Drafting for me has now often become a process of writing by hand, dictating, and then rewriting on a screen.
What’s surprising to me is that the snapshot of a notebook I just shared above — a random page from 2013, I believe, which I hadn’t read since writing it—touches on some of the same obsessions I have today for a short story that never got off the ground.
Extremism. Radicalism. Interrogation
Evidently, 10 years ago I was imagining “the conversion of a quietist to a radical.” A snatch of imagined dialogue for an interrogator in this sketch of a never realized piece of fiction:
“There are no innocents in a time of extremism,” he said. “Naivete is no saving grace.”
As it happened, this week, I shared some observations from the novel I’ve read most often in my life (perhaps four times), Demons (also called The Possessed or The Devils) by Dostoevsky.
What I’m Enjoying and Working On
I have an idea for a longer work alluded to above… about which the less said now the better.
I’m carrying out the advice of Gretchen Rubin in renewing old friendships, celebrating minor holidays, and taking an inventory of the self.
Reading (I always read too many things at once):
Eric Hoffer, True Believer
Dostoyevsky, The Devils. (Just finished; see above.)
Gretchen Rubin, Life in Five Senses
Proust, Guermantes’ Way
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda
What’s inspiring you? What are you struggling with?
If you find yourself blocked for some reason—try getting out a pen. Let me know how it goes.
Until the next time,