Instruments of Mass Creation

When I first learned to touch-type, we sat in front of large efficient manual typewriters and learned how to sit, how to place our fingers to maximize leverage, and how to work with a consistent, deliberate rhythm so our keys didn’t get tangled up.  We used carbon paper and ink erasers, and memorized how many characters we could fit in after the margin bell went off (five).  I still, after all these years, put two spaces after every period, and as I work now, I can hear in my mind the chugging clack, the regular gear-slide of the carriage return handle, and the thwock as the carriage slams back into the left margin.

It was laborious.  And yet writers managed to write nonetheless.

My fingers are not poised above the keyboard now; instead, I rest my wrists on my laptop and negligently flutter my fingertips with an almost-silent pattering noise, twice as quickly as I could have possibly typed back then.  I move backward and forward with casual dexterity.  There is no conscious connection between the words, my fingers, and the screen; thoughts shuttle through my head and appear (and disappear, and mutate) on the monitor as if I have only to imagine them and they appear.

Miraculous and almost too easy.  And yet writers manage to commit to their words despite the horrid never-ending ability to have second (and third and fifty-fifth) thoughts and act on them.

Everything is different.  Everything is the same.

Chisels, quill pens, fountain pens, pencils, ball points, gel pens, styluses, keyboards, and voice dictation; uncial, italic, copperplate, cursive, print, and type; paper documents, hard disk files, and the cloud; if you can think of a writing instrument, there is someone to say it is the only possible method.* Human beings form attachments, either to the past or to a supposed future.  And writers, like baseball players, are superstitious and wedded to rituals, for the same reasons: Because they know too much about what can go wrong.

The problem with this kind of self-protection is that it makes you less resilient.  My students used to tell me they couldn’t do their homework because the power was out, their computers crashed, or the Internet wasn’t working.  I had an irritating response.  “Let me introduce you to a remarkable technology,” I would say.  “It does not need electricity.  It contains its own deletion method.  You can use it in the dark, without electricity or the Internet,” and I would hold up a pencil.

Yes, I was being snarky.  I was a middle school teacher.  Being snarky was part of my job description.

But the point is, one way or another, you have to do the work.

I do like the way words appear (and disappear as I delete) on the screen in front of me right now, and the way I can revise as I go.  But my writing happens in my mind, not on the screen.  It isn’t dependent on the medium.

I do hate it when I write the wrong word in fountain pen and have to cross it out.  But the act of lining-out the word, of circling a phrase and drawing an arrow to a different place on the page, of writing a sentence in the margin and then realizing it is going to be a paragraph, teaches me humility and makes me more creative, not less.  Humility, because expecting my words to be perfect is fatal for a writer, especially when drafting, and I need to accept that mistakes are part of the deal.  Creativity, because without the surprise of error, the inflexibility of the medium, and the necessity of moving forward, no one would ever think of anything new.

Take a break from your inflexible habits.  Try writing with an instrument you have never used before.  Write in Scrivener or in Evernote.  Write with a goose quill or a Fisher Space Pen, in grape juice, Diamine Bilberry, or Noodler’s Bad Belted Kingfisher Blue.  Words, one after another, will emerge some kind of new arrangement you have never seen before.  I promise.**


*I taught my middle school students cursive, which led people to believe I was a traditionalist.†  There is some evidence to show that writing by hand has a good influence on thinking, but precious little support for the idea that script is inherently more virtuous.  ‡
†In case I haven’t mentioned it recently, I also taught them grammar and sentence outlining.  There is also very little research evidence that knowing the parts of speech or being able to break a sentence into its components improves writing.  I taught these things because I figured part of education is being counter-cultural and because certain types of knowledge are cultural capital.  However, I warned my students never to be grammar snobs, because punctuation has nothing to do with intelligence.  Please do not expect me to agree with grammar peeves you have.  I tend to get snarky when that happens.
‡I am still waiting for someone to make a screen stylus that is as much fun to write with as a fountain pen, however.  Even though handwriting recognition and touch screens have revolutionized hand lettering, it still isn’t good enough for me.  §
§ Yes, I know voice transcription is the wave of the future.  So is just thinking the words and having them appear glowing in the air.  They have been predicting transformation and waves of the future about every new technology since the coming of the Cocqcigrues||
|| `That is one of the seven things,’ said the fairy Bedonebyasyoudid, `I am forbidden to tell till the coming of the Cocqcigrues.’ ” — C. Kingsley: The Water Babies  No, Garth Nix didn’t invent Cocquigrues.
** However, learn to touch-type if you don’t already know how to. It’s very handy.

12 thoughts on “Instruments of Mass Creation

    1. DMT says:

      That’s the lesson all writers have to learn, isn’t it? But we have to learn it so many times and in so many different ways . . . I call it the “showing up” rule. Show up and do the job.

  1. Greta says:

    Yes! You are preaching to the choir, as we must be of the the same vintage, but I heartily endorse this post!
    I start each day writing by hand, before I ever get to the keyboard. It seems to help free me from the habit of nervously watching the clock (to gauge WPM) or the bottom of the Word screen for word counts.
    Thanks for the memories of typing class. 😉

    1. DMT says:

      I do the same – I have a journal, and I write in it in fountain pen every day. You’re right, it’s freeing.
      Nice to know someone else remembers typewriters!

    1. DMT says:

      My daughter and I work together in coffee shops some days. She’s also a ballpoint fan, though she did ask me for inexpensive fountain pens for Christmas.
      A quill would be nice as a decoration, though, wouldn’t it?

  2. Glynis Jolly says:

    Yes, I’ve gotten stuck in the habit of using the keyboard. My penmanship has gotten so ugly there are words I can’t make out when I use a pen or pencil. My brain has gotten lazy when it comes to spelling and vocabulary because the dictionary and thesaurus are just a click away. I should use a pen or pencil once in a while.

    1. DMT says:

      Yeah, our tools weaken us at the same time as they help us (that was another lesson I taught sometimes). I actually had to teach myself to write neatly as an adult, though like any other physical skill, practice pays off pretty quickly.

  3. Amy Laurel says:

    It’s funny, I have a writer friend who insists that all his first drafts be in fountain pen. I prefer typing to handwriting, but do a fair amount of journaling by hand. I agree that it’s useful to switch it up so you don’t feel helpless if your favorite method fails you. Thanks for the post!

    1. DMT says:

      Thanks for commenting! I think part of my eclectic approach is simply due to my love of words in ALL their forms (I do calligraphy too), so my advice may be taken with a grain of salt.

  4. Karen A says:

    I’m also old enough to remember learning to touch type on a manual machine. I often journal with a fountain pen because I enjoy the process of using one, and what it looks like after you are done. I have relatively nice handwriting, although I’m not great at calligraphy. And I have written longhand when I’ve felt stuck. Sometimes slowing it down is just what you need!

    1. DMT says:

      I think I agree you, but what are the benefits for you of “slowing down?” What does it help with? What does it do? I know what it does for me, but I’m curious (I’ve learned not to assume that others think the way I do).

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