Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Handwriting on the Wall

Dana Gioia in his collection of essays, Disappearing Ink, makes a point of valuing the handwritten manuscript, pointing out the high prices such paperwork demands from collectors and literary scholars. He also points out that most contemporary writers discard those messy drafts, if they exist at all. Most of us use a computer to ease the revision and to store our work. That last idea can be a myth if your laptop DIES and you cannot start it. Even BACKING UP your work does not guarantee that you will retrieve every poems or short story. At least we need to keep hard copy, and although retyping a novel is hard duty, at least the creative work is not lost and in the retyping one might notice flaws that looked like flourishes in the earlier version. Yes, I know all of this from personal experience. Now, if I can find the original file for my business cards, I'll be happy.

However, I wonder what the writing process was like for those who had no word processor, who relied solely on pen and ink. Were those writers less inclined to fix the flaws? Was it sometimes too much effort to rewrite the whole piece? Did that intimate relationship between the thought and the hand make a difference in what landed on the page? I write early drafts in longhand, then proceed to print somewhere in the middle of the piece. Line breaks are infinitely easier on the screen, and seeing the white space as it will look on the page helps to shape the poem. But the work takes on a certain anonymity. Anyone might have used the keyboard to produce these words, unlike my handwriting, which no one would willingly duplicate. My process rides the cusp between generations of pen wielders and generations of keyboarders. A teacher once told me that my poems exist is a middle ground between heaven and hell; my process fits that place. 

1 comment:

FranD said...

Just heard this on NPR. You may have, too. If not here is the link:

It's about typewriters.