Thursday, 23 April 2015


For all my writer friends out there. From Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Which I would totally recommend. You know how I love these types of books. And she lived in New York once upon a time. Oh my.

Most of us compose directly on screens at some point the writing process. Desktops, laptops, iPads, and variations and thereof. Walk into any Starbucks, or down the aisle of any train or plane and there we are, our faces made ghostly by the bluish-white light cast from our devices. But the screen can make our work look neat and tidy - finished - before it is. We can swoop in, search and replace, cut and paste, highlight, delete, and all the while the screen absorbs the changes and still look the same. If you've never tried it, see what happens if you write a draft of something longhand. Before long, you will be forced to x out whole sentences. You'll draw circles and asterisks and arrows. You'll change your mind about why you've crossed out, and write "stet" in the margins. It will look messy because it is messy. It should be that: a beautiful, complicated mess. Who knows? Maybe only one sentence will remain. Maybe the whole order will be upended. You'll be able to see a road map of your progress as you build the architecture of your story. The poet Mark Strand has made art of his drafts in which doodles and scribbles and columns fill up the space with what the poet Jorie Graham call "a mildly feverish black cursive."

This fever is lost on the screen. The evidence of the mind making he thing - made visible in the cross outs, the thick rewriting of words over other words, the fanciful sketches - a cloud, a camel, a man in a hat - that seems to ride the waves of language, the places where the pen grows dark and forceful, nearly stabbing in its intensity. This is work being made in real time. Work that reveals its scars.

But - unless we are poets - there are practical considerations to writing longhand. Your hand gets a cramp. You become afraid of losing the notebook. Though I begin most of my creative work in a notebook, when I reach 30 or 40 pages, I type a draft into my computer. What if there was a fire? A flood? The irony that my work stored on a cloud feels safer than the solid weight of a spiral-bound notebook, does not escape me. But at least for a while, the circles and squiggles, the x'd out sentences, the asterisks ad inserts covering every inch of every page have served their purpose. They remind me that my work is changeable. That there is play in this thing I'm doing. I'm a child, finger-painting. This colour? Why not? There is joy - rather than industry - in putting pen to paper. A sense of possibility.

For the past dozen years, I have used a particular brand of spiral-bound notebook - dark blue, the insignia of a prep school I did not attend emblazoned on its cover. I've become a little obsessive about those notebooks. They can only be found in one bookstore, in my in-law's hometown. Whenever I visit, I stop by the prep school bookstores and stock up. I carry home armloads of them. I live in fear of running out, or - horrible thought - that they might be discontinued. Why those notebooks? They're nothing special to look at. I have no connection to the school, other than its location in the town where my husband grew up. The reason I'm attached to them is simple: the first time I randomly happened to write in one of those notebooks, the work went well.

We are, many of us, superstitious creatures. We think there may be reasons our day flows in the right direction. A favourite necklace, a penny found on the sidewalk, a crystal we tuck into our pocket, a private mantra - we may rely on talismans to help us along. But I've never heard of a writer feel that way about a device with a screen. Oh sure, they're functional. We would be lost without them. But just as we need to feel our feet on the earth, smell and taste the world around us, the pen scratching against the page, sensory and slow, is the difference between looking at a high-definition picture of a flower and holding that very same flower in your palm, feeling the brush of its petals, the colour of its stamen rubbing off on your fingers.

Pick a notebook, any notebook. if you compose well in it, you will become attached. Choose a pen that feels right. It could be a beautiful, expensive fountain pen, or any old BIC. Whatever feels good in your hand. Okay - this is your notebook, and this is your pen. Balance your notebook on your lap or set it on a table. And wherever you are in your work, stet there. If you listen closely, you'll hear the sound your pen makes as it moves across the page. Now, doodle something. Write a few sentences. Scratch them out. Write a few more.

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