“By Hand” by Louise DeSalvo
January 25, 2010
Well we went, and now we’re back. And, according to the pact my husband and I made, we didn’t take our computers or our cell phones. Which meant we were away from keyboards for nearly two weeks. But I did take a notebook — a legendary Moleskine, used, they say in the little leaflet that comes with each journal, by Van Gogh, Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin (he bought a hundred of them from a stationery shop in Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in Paris before leaving for Australia).
I love Moleskines for travel because they’re lightweight, ruled (you can also get them unruled), they have a ribbon marker, a little pocket for storing ephemera, a rubberized band to hold the book closed, and the paper quality is excellent. I used to buy handcrafted notebooks every time I went to Italy — those beautiful ones with Florentine paper covers — but they’re heavy and expensive and rather unwieldy to write on and I think that I will switch to the no-nonsense workmanlike Moleskines exclusively from now on, even at home.
Anyway, I took my Moleskine away on my holiday and wrote by hand each day for about an hour and came home with 80 pages of diary, notes about my reading, ideas for writing, insights into my work-in-progress. I did keep my pledge to myself not to work, so I didn’t draft anything towards my book-in-progress. And I didn’t see the writing I was doing as work. It was sheer pleasure. I was writing outside in the fresh air, and writing became part of my daily holiday routine, like my walk and evening swim.
There was a place in our hotel that had WiFi. There were beautiful mahogany chairs to sit in, although few of them faced the water in this oceanfront hotel, and although it was a lovely space, somehow it seemed desolate with all these people bending over their keyboards and screens. And it seemed to me very strange as I passed this place each day on my walk, to watch all these holiday makers glued to their keyboards, oblivious to the cavorting of the whales in the Pacific just a few hundred yards from the beach, oblivious to the waving palms, to the birdsong, to the crashing waves, to the Bougainvillea flowering all round.
I noticed, then, something about using a computer that I hadn’t noticed before. People rarely pause to look up from the screen to see what’s around them as they race pell-mell through their emails, through their responding, through their composing. These people didn’t seem to be on vacation — their faces looked obsessed, possessed, tortured, even. It seems as if the screen is sucking them into cyberspace, eradicating the world around them, even if that world is paradise. “Be where you are” — that Zen Buddhist ideal — was hardly present here. And I wondered whether I too look like this when I’m at my own computer, and whether I too get absorbed into the world of the screen and the keyboard, and I had to admit that, yes, I certainly do.
I would take my notebook to a veranda of the hotel overlooking the Pacific. From this vantage point, I could see the ocean — the whales, the fishing boat, the speckles of light shining on the surface, the sand, the waves, a rocky escarpment, a little fountain, palm trees, and the magnificent architecture of the place. I could see people walking, pausing to look at cacti; people greeting each other as they passed; people shuffling to the beach clutching their possessions. Sometimes there was a little drama — two people in the midst of a quarrel, deciding to go their separate ways, and then deciding not to, and laughing at whatever, just a few moments before, had been cause for contention.
There was an artificial waterfall just beyond where I sat so I could hear the sound of the water splashing into the pond below. And I could hear birdsong. One of the men who worked at the hotel, with whom I had long conversations, liked to feed the birds, though he was instructed by the management not to. He showed me how he “stole” birdseed from the flower vases in the lobby (the seeds were used to stabilize the flower arrangement) and how he put the seeds on a crossbeam just out of sight so his boss wouldn’t catch him. “I feed them all year,” he said. “Their life is hard. This is a desert.”
As I wrote, I paused, looked up, looked around, returned to my writing, refreshed, renewed. I realized that, had I been at a portable computer, Karim wouldn’t have interrupted me to have our daily conversation. Would I have interrupted those denizens of the WiFi area to say hello? Of course not. Have you ever interrupted someone at a computer screen? Have you ever tried to get their attention?
And so I thought about all the writers I knew who wrote by hand and wondered, as I often do, whether the process of writing books by hand differs from the process of composing at the computer, whether it might be somewhat more pleasurable. Books were written by hand, of course, for scores of years before typewriters, by computers, and I myself “came up” as a writer, writing by hand.
Virginia Woolf wrote at her novel-in-progress in her holograph notebooks each morning — she often made them by hand herself — typing out her morning’s writing in the afternoon. As she wrote by hand in her writing cottage in Rodmell, England in the Sussex South Downs, she could pause, look up, see water meadows, and beyond, the Downs themselves. Often, if she was writing journal, she commented upon what she saw. She worked perhaps more slowly because she was writing by hand, but her writer’s output was considerable nonetheless. The setting of Between the Acts, the novel she had finished in draft before she died, included, as setting, the very landscape she witnessed as she wrote.
D. H. Lawrence wrote by hand also. In a humble cottage in Higher Tregerthen in Cornwall, Lawrence made a comfortable home for himself and his wife Frieda. I learned about this stage of Lawrence’s life when he began composing Women in Love when I was researching his life for my book Conceived with Malice, about how writers used their writing as revenge against the people in their lives. The cottage was in a splendid situation, overlooking the sea and setting sun, near the moors, close to stone-filled fields. When the weather was fine, Lawrence went outside onto a hill slope, and sat in the sun, bracing himself against a pale grey outcropping and wrote with his notebook upon his knees. There, amid the sounds of birds and wind and sea, he wrote his novel. Writing outside, he said, made him feel “safe and remote.”
So what have we lost, those of us who write on computers and not by hand?
I wrote my first book by hand sitting at a library table at the Ramapo College Library in the days before computers, before electric typewriters, even. I had young children and my mother cared for them a few days a week so I could write. I’d pack up my books, my research notes, my yellow pads of paper, my pens, my paperclips, and set off to the library to write. I’d write from about ten to three, then return home. As I wrote by hand, I could look up at the Ramapo Mountains, at the clouds scudding along, at the row of pine trees that lined the road to the college. I sat at the same table each time I went there and witnessed, through the months when I drafted first one chapter and then another, two young lovers begin and deepen a relationship. They sat either opposite me, or a few tables away, and I was enchanted by them. Whenever I wanted to take a break, all I had to do was look up and gaze at my surroundings, or witness the development of their attachment.
Did it take me any longer to write that book than it’s taken me to write books on a typewriter, say, or on a computer? In fact, it took me far less time. The draft of that book was over 700 typed pages long, and it took me just about a year to write, type, and revise several times. The book I’m currently writing (on a computer) is in its fifth year of composition (I completed another book while I’ve been writing at it). I have scores and scores of pages, variations on scenes — and that’s the problem. I can compose to my heart’s content on a computer. I can write one draft of a scene, and then another, and another. What I’m doing, though, is drafting, I’m not writing, and that’s fine I suppose. But what I have, now, is way too much material, way too many versions. What I have are pages that, yes, will become a book. But I wouldn’t call this, as I would call that first book, a book-in-progress. With my first book, I made decisions about turning pages into a book as I went along. With this book, I’ve suspended that process, and now have to face the music.
The “pay-off” in the ability to write so much material might be the deepening about the events I might glean from all these different versions. The “rip-off” is the feeling of frustration and inadequacy that comes from the “too-muchness” of the material I’ve generated which often overwhelms me and forestalls my process.
I once talked to a famous editor who told me that she can always tell when a book has been written on a computer. “There’s always too much of it there, and the prose is flabby. Writers get intoxicated with their language and they go on and on and on. And besides, they often don’t reread what they write, or they try to revise on the screen, which is impossible to do, so their writing isn’t writing, it’s typing.”
Will I continue to compose on a computer? I’ve made the decision that for my next book, I won’t. I’ll go back to the way I wrote years ago and see what happens.