Tuesday, June 28, 2005

on writing by hand, writer's block, and Queen Elizabeth's diary

The novelist and historian Shelby Foote who passed away yesterday usually wrote by hand, as opposed to writing with a typewriter--or with a keyboard. One report I heard today mentioned that he used to write with a quill and dipped it in an ink well. Fascinating. He said that writing by hand was more personal than writing with a typewriter.

Throughout high school, college, and even the first few years at seminary, I always wrote my reports and essays by hand. After completing them, I would type them up.

When I mentioned this to a classmate a couple of years ago, he looked at me and said, "Wow." He added that my writing style was not only time-consuming but also straining on the hand. True, but I always thought that's all part of writing. Plus, he said, it made me seem quite ancient. Many people of my generation and subsequent ones learned to compose prose using a keyboard. Not me.

But a couple of years ago I found myself starting to compose my work using a keyboard. I remember how it began: I was pressed for time, I had two reports due in a week, and I hadn't written a thing.

So I turned on my computer, pulled up the word processor, and started to write the first paragraph. I was doing quite well until I reached the third: then, writer's block. That's to be expected. Writers deal with this all the time. So, I stared at the screen, fingers poised on the keypad, waiting for the words. They wouldn't come.

If I had been writing this by hand I would have stared at my script and observed how I had written the last word. I would have noticed the tails on my g's and p's. Or I would have held the paper up and re-read my writing from a different angle, or I would have walked around the room with the paper in hand while reading it again.

I can't do that with a monitor.

So I was stuck, staring at the perfect Times New Roman font and the blinking cursor. Desperate, I rewrote all 4 paragraphs by hand, otherwise I would have been just staring at the screen waiting for the next word which wouldn't come unless I do something.

I eventually completed the papers on time. But those were two of the most difficult papers I had to write and it's not because of the subject matter: I had a fast-approaching deadline, two papers due, and I chose to try out a new writing style because I thought it would be faster. Silly me.

But then it got easier. During the past year, I had written all of my essays by keyboard: but still writing by hand letters, thank you notes, important essays, and even my daily journal. Writing by hand is a habit that will never die away I feel.

This reminds me...

Several years ago there was a documentary on PBS featuring a year in the life of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. A footage showed her and her guests touring the library at Windsor Castle.

A group of them was admiring Queen Victoria's journal, all written by her hand. Elizabeth let it be known to them that she also keeps a diary, but not as extensive as Victoria's.

Then a bishop, possibly concerned about confidentiality and security, was caught on film asking her, "Do you write it by your own hand?"

"Oh yes," Elizabeth immediately replied. "Oh I think that's very important," he tells the Queen.

She looks away for a moment. Then looks at him in the eyes, and with perfect deadpan says, "Well I can't write it any other way."

Read about Shelby Foote here.

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