August 08, 2004

Writing by hand, redux.

I sent my first email in the late spring semester of my junior year as an undergraduate, April 2000. At Goucher, we all had email addresses and a postbox and voicemail and such. I even had classes wherein I was required to check my school email address daily, but it was understood by most of my professors that I did not use personal computers (to say that I never used computers at all is, of course, false – I flew to Boston frequently on a plane that depended on computers for everything but taking off and landing, had a computer in my stereo, benefitted from computerized everything in a modern American city, etc.). For the first two years of college, despite my friends scratching their heads, I wrote all of my papers by hand and typed them the long way on an electric typewriter. I was never a very good typist, and typing a five-seven page paper literally took me from the mid-afternoon to the late evening. I know, that IBM typewriter was not the simple contraption of yore, any more than a gel pen is a quill pen. But something in that writing process made my writing infinitely better than it is now. My parents made me take a laptop away to college my junior year, but I resisted the internet/email devil until late that spring. I began to compose on the computer, as I began to be able to actually type ten pages in one sitting, and the quality of my writing just seemed to go away. Almost five years later, I was still telling myself that my writing would pick up, that I would get back in the swing of things. My paper for my research project this summer was less than great, certainly not what I hoped it would be. I noticed that my writing has lost its compactness and has become corpulent. So, I thought for a while about getting a typewriter last week, since I can now type on a computer faster than I can write by hand and since the right amount of caffeine can help my digits keep up with my brain. But simply typing slower might not be the answer. The terseness with which I used to be able to write essays on Nietzsche and Sartre would have made Hemingway proud. There was a time when I could be compact, clear and consistent. Perhaps the way to get back to where my writing was is to write more by hand, not to get a typewriter or to act as if the ability to write better philosophy papers will just magically come back to me one day. It probably has nothing to do with a magical intimacy between the writer’s brain and the pen or pencil on paper. I’m sure that, for me, it has more to do with the fact that I learned how to put what is in my head on paper, not on a screen. And, in college, I had a system worked out that started with writing everything out. I never even tried to replace my system with a better one when I switched to computers. I seem to have expected the same results with a different approach. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? So, my resolution for the upcoming fall semester is to write more by hand, even though I’m a poor speller and even though it will take much, much longer to write papers. Too bad, though, that I am through with my course requirements for the PhD (no more required classes, that is) after this fall’s semester. What was it that the Romans used to say, “The owl of Minerva flies at midnight”?


Sal said...

I agree re the terseness, compactness.
Errr, in general, not commenting on your blog :)

I think the key advantage writing has over typing, is that it's less linear. You can quickly hack phrases and lines all over the page as a later thought makes you realise the balance of a sentence might be better served this way, or that a later wandering would have a lot more value if referred to earlier, etc etc.

If I have something of nontrivial length, I find writing it first, then hacking it with pen, before sitting down to type it (and doing a third edit run as it's typed), creates the result I'm happiest with.

Anonymous said...

Interesting view on the impact of pc's and quality of writing. I've had the opposite experience, myself. My writing flows on the computer and is tortured and constipated when writing by hand. The typewriter helps also, but I have no patience for cutting and pasting anymore.