Exploring the handwritten word


Handwritten draft of a column about thoroughbred trainer Tom McCarthy. (Click image for larger version.)

Here came Ralph Waldo Emerson, on my first mandated day away from the Sports Page, expressing the very problem I was experiencing even as I read.

“To go into solitude,” he wrote, “a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.”

And to think, Emerson’s chamber didn’t even have wireless Internet.

The New Yorker was on the case, too. In a “Shouts and Murmurs” column, Andy Borowitz panned Disney CEO Robert Igor for the description of his “quiet time” he gave to The New York Times:

“I get up at 4:30 every morning. I like the quiet time. I can recharge my batteries a bit. I exercise and I clear my head and I catch up on the world. I read papers. I look at e-mail. I surf the Web. I watch a little TV, all at the same time. I call it my quiet time but I’m already multitasking. I love listening to music, so I’ll do that in the morning, too, when I’m exercising and watching the news.”

Quiet time isn’t what it used to be. Though, if Emerson is to be believed — and in my experience, he almost always is — it has always been a tough thing to find.

Even on furlough.

* * *

The problem is too many screens. If you sit down to write in front of one, a couple of keystrokes will take you to another screen, which often leads you to another. By the time you navigate back to your blank page, you’re like the guy who takes off jogging, runs too far from home, and winds up huffing his way back in a halting walk.

I know several writers who have hit the thrift stores looking for typewriters, or old word processors that have no other capacity. Others unplug the Internet from whatever computer they’re working on.

The notion of writing as a solitary enterprise is quickly abandoned by anyone who seeks to publish. The involvement of editors, proofreaders and even readers themselves takes care of that notion.

As Emerson was likely getting at, the writer alone at a desk is nonetheless dealing with voices that influence whatever he or she is writing at the time.

But a couple of weeks ago, the increasingly un-solitary nature of writing gained more meaning for me when the newspaper I write for installed a new computer system. With it, the stories reporters write are not only visible to everyone else at the newspaper through the system, but may be read at any stage of their development. If editors want to see how my column is coming along, they may simply click “read” and see where I stand.

This is nothing new in newspapers. Every once in a while, you write with someone peeking over your shoulder, and you get used to it.

The trouble comes when you sit down to write something that isn’t for the newspaper. More serious writing requires you to put aside the other screens, and the other eyes.

* * *

Earlier this year I was writing a piece while on a plane, and when the computer battery ran down I closed up the laptop, wishing I hadn’t had to stop working during a pretty productive little stretch.

Then I felt like an idiot. As it turns out, the antidote to tabbed browsing and power restrictions is pretty simple.

Pen and paper. This should not be a revelation. But for someone who has composed my newspaper work exclusively with keyboard and computer for 20 years, it marks a departure.

A fortunate departure. The initial obstacles to freeing myself of the distractions of the screen and the limitations of battery life — my handwriting and my impatience — were easy to overcome.

Any number of online refreshers for handwriting practice are available. A couple of half-hour stints of practicing letters was pleasantly calming. And I soon discovered that the more deliberate pace required by handwriting had, for me, more benefits than drawbacks. In fashioning the letters (not just writing the words), I found a more personal relationship with what I was writing, a more considered approach.

When I tried with a few newspaper columns, the columns were better. On a computer screen, words are cheap. They dribble off the fingers and disappear if they don’t strike the right note. Writing and revision are simultaneous. And set in professional fonts on a well-lit screen, it’s easy for a piece to look and seem finished when it truly isn’t.

I soon found with my return to handwriting that more thought went into the structure of the sentence itself. And that when the page is filled, it is a more tangible and, though I don’t like the term, living thing, than the page on the screen.

* * *

I didn’t tell them in the training sessions for the new computer system at work that, if they want to check up on the progress of some of my columns, they’re not only going to have to find me, but my legal pad. (At right is a sample of a column begun by hand. Click on it to enlarge it.)

I’m heartened that this quest for quiet and a decent method for getting the words out has been around for as long as writing has. Vladimir Nabokov used to write in his car, on index cards.

Handwriting is a dying practice, they say. Its instruction in many schools even has been replaced by “keyboarding” lessons. I know it may be a lost art. But in it, I found something.

POSTSCRIPT: In an example of the inescapability of work, not long after I decided to put together this blog entry, the big news in local sports broke, about a former player at Memphis was accused of cheating on the SAT, setting off a flurry of controversy here, where his old coach is now at the University of Kentucky. And what means did they use to decide he may have cheated on the test? Of course — his handwriting.


2 thoughts on “Exploring the handwritten word

  1. I’ve been thinking about this too lately: my instinct has always been for the handwritten and the feel of paper and pen. More tangible and engaging than the virtual page and keys you barely need to press to imprint, but with deadlines pending it’s so easy to turn on the computer and begin rather than transcibe from the notebook…
    I indulge in cafes and on public transport and whenever I’m kept waiting somewhere though, or an idea sparks in an incongenially un-computered place. The act of the hand writing – still a good feeling!

  2. Eric — enjoying the blog. Hope you keep posting.

    In re pen and paper — I find I cannot write poetry on a computer. It’s wierd — I can write blog posts, and essays, and even fiction, on a keyboard; but poetry REQUIRES pen and paper.

    Keep it coming.

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