Monday, November 8, 2010

Paul Auster on Pencils and Notebooks

There is an interview with Paul Auster here. Among other things, he talks about his writing implements: "I do have a few unusual writing habits—I'm a dinosaur now. I write everything by hand and type it up on an old manual typewriter, an Olympia 1961 ... I've never been able to compose on a keyboard. I need a pen or a pencil in my hand, feel that it's a very physical activity. When I write, words are literally coming out of my body.

And: "I'm very particular about my notebooks, and 95 percent of the time they are the same kind of notebook: They're made in France and are very tall—Clairefontaine brand, 24 x 32 centimeters. They're filled with pages of graph paper, which I like, as my handwriting is rather small."

You knew this, at least since Oracle Night, didn't you?

And: "I tend to buy notebooks whenever I travel. I have Norwegian notebooks, Japanese notebooks, Australian notebooks. I write with a fountain pen, and over the years I've experimented with many different kinds of fountain pens, but for the past decade or so I've been using an Italian brand called Aurora. I do write with pencils, too, and those are always Pentel mechanical pencils with 0.5 leads. I told you I have small handwriting!"

These quotations do not make for the most important parts of this interview, of course. But I must say that I am a bit surprised by the fact that he has not taken at all to the computer. In fact, for some reason, he was the last writer from whom I would have expected this. It's just more (anecdotal) evidence for my theory that in writing there is much less of a relationship between the tools you use in writing and the output you create than some people would like to believe.

Most people who also like paper notebooks and mechanical pencils—like me—produce mainly crap. (Nor is this changed, if they change to software program(s) to store their notes and compose their prose.)

Perhaps I should note here as a counterpoint that I would have been really disappointed, if Auster had used a program like Scrivener. Just doesn't seem right ...


Michael Leddy said...

Very illuminating. The attention given to Auster's Olympia (there's even a book about it) led me to assume that he composed on the machine.

MK said...

Which book is about his Olympia? I missed that one.

Thanks for the positive feedback. Did I say before that I enjoy your blog? If I did, I say it again ...

pohanginapete said...

Intriguing — thanks! I agree with Auster, at least to the extent that I think very differently when I'm typing (on a computer, not a typewriter — I doubt I could even manage that) compared to writing by hand. I use a fountain pen, and the combination of pen, ink and paper seems to have a large bearing on how easily the writing flows.

I'm curious, though — you say Auster's claims support your theory that tools influence writing less than some people believe. On the contrary, it seems to me to do the opposite: Auster's claiming the tools are critical. What am I missing?

MK said...

Well ... this is more about my hypothesis or, more modestly, my hunches. It seems to me that Auster's meta-narrative style would go hand in hand with computers, hypertext, etc. But it does not. So, he could create very modernist, or post-modernist prose, if you will, with ante-antediluvian tools.

I know that he thinks his tools are important. But I think he is wrong.

I should have made this clearer.

Thanks for your comments, though.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks for the clarification. Not sure I agree, though. The fact that Auster uses archaic tools to produce writing of a style seemingly better suited to that modern tool, the computer, might suggest only that the processes for which the computer is better suited are not those Auster finds critical for his work. I'm out of my depth here, knowing little about how he works (other than what you've pointed out in this post), but my guess is he's not talking about things like structure and editing, but instead the critical things that precede those processes — imagination, for example. I note he doesn't say he composes on his typewriter — he types it up, presumably after he's finished composing.

Apparently, recent neurophysiological research shows handwriting and typing use the brain differently. While I suspect the speculation about this stretches far beyond a reasonable interpretation of the data, it suggests the two ways of writing are at least different.

MK said...

On second (or third) thought, I think you were right in your original comment. Auster's practice is not evidence for the view I hold (though it is not evidence against it either). I had some expectations which turned out to be wrong. Sorry to have been so muddle-headed.

I also agree with your second comment. No doubt that different brain processes must be involved in typing and in handwriting.

What I am skeptical about is that the tools we use determine (in any strict way) what we write or think.

pohanginapete said...

Cheers MK. I think it's an exceptionally difficult question to answer. Most of the "evidence" (either way) seems to be nothing more than writers' anecdotes or beliefs about their writing processes, and that falls far short of objective data. Even the neurophysiological (MRI) studies would have problems, because they'd mostly describe brain activity in people who've been using a particular tool for many years. A sound experiment with adequate replication would be next to impossible.

Pnannie said...

No, no , no.....Auster's antiquated methods speak volumes about the craftsman and his tools. Don't you see? That's just it. Auster discovered his best method of creation was the larger than normal notebook and a certain and pecific fountain pen. He couldn't write to his incredible standard without these less than thrilling tools. So, the tools a writer chooses matter very much indeed as I think many woould tell you.