Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mary Gordon on Handwriting and Notebooks

Here another reaction to one of the entries in Writers [on Writing, Collected Essays from New York Times], edited by John Darnton (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001). It's to Mary Gordon's "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper" (78-83).

Gordon finds: "Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world" (79). She says she likes to write with her Waterman's "black enamel with a trim of gold" pen (whatever model that may be).

She also tells us that has a shelf in her closet "entirely devoted to notebooks," which she chooses "for the perfect relationship between container and the thing contained" and buys wherever she goes "in the world (80). Indeed, most of the essay is made up about descriptions of notebooks from France, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, and Vermont. Her thoughts on the daily reading of Proust go into a French notebook that "is robin's-egg blue on on the outside" (80).

Finally, she also talks about copying other writers in her own hand. "It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure [intended by her as a reference to her own writing] starts, to use one's hand and wrist , to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one's own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing ..." She does not know "what people who work on computers do to get themselves started," but she hopes "never to learn firsthand."

I find all of this a bit too much. I also own fountain pens (even a Waterman), and I like to write with them. I also have written many notes in Notebooks (many of them Composition Books bought at the local CVS, but some of them nicely bound as well). And I have bought Notebooks in Spain, Germany, and Scotland. It's not like I don't understand that obsession. But I cannot say that I have ever noticed a "perfect relationship between container and the thing contained." The notes and drafts don't improve by being contained in a better notebook. This is sad, because if they were, I could spend my way to better notes and writing.

I also have problems with the idea that writing by is more "physical" and involves "flesh, blood, and thingness" more than a typewriter or even a computer. Perhaps it is because I grew up in post-Nazi Germany that I find the adulation "of flesh, blood, and thingness" a priori off-putting, but perhaps it also has to do with having read too much Kant.

It's not that I don't like to write by hand. In fact, I don't find it any more "laborious" than typing—perhaps even less so. But the advantages of finding my notes again after I wrote them outweigh for me any nostalgic attachment to pen and paper. Furthermore, rewriting is much easier on computers.

One thing that almost reconciled me with her sentiments was her fleeting reference to Auden's pronouncement on handwriting and farting, but she spoiled it by misspelling farts as "...". Perhaps a little too much "flesh and blood" in Auden?

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