Anna Quindlen: “Something written by hand brings a human presence that the typewriter or the computer cannot confer”

From a story on by Anna Quindlen on “The power of writing by hand”:

The following is excerpted from Write for Your Life by Anna Quindlen.

The manuscript of A Christmas Carol, which is in the Morgan Library in New York City, is really something else. It’s not simply that Scrooge, the Cratchits, and the Fezziwigs live in it; it’s that Dickens does. In heavy-handed black ink he pushes forward on unlined paper, something about his script suggesting speed, or perhaps it’s just that I know he wrote the book in six weeks. It’s a bit terrifying to consider that this was the only copy of the novella. A fire? A flood? A disaster.

It is humbling to see how much crossing out Dickens did, how much rewriting and cutting. It reminds you of what we will never see of the work of some modern novelists, whose revisions are sanded from the rough wood of the first draft by the overwriting on the computer. The rough wood is in this manuscript; the overwriting overwhelms. The novelist John Mortimer wrote of “the obliterations achieved by a sort of undulating scrawl, patterned like the waves on the sea.” They are everywhere. Dickens wrote, and was dissatisfied with his writing, and wrote again, and expunged with a heavy hand, so that it is nearly impossible to see what was there in the first place.

I wonder: Was Dickens, already famous at the time, safeguarding the possibility that someone might think to produce, or at least study, a first imperfect draft of his work? Some writers cover their tracks, burn their letters. They’re not simply writing for you, or themselves, but for posterity. They don’t want readers to know how they did what they did any more than the magician wants you to know how the handkerchief became the dove. Was Dickens one such?

There it is: In looking at the handwriting, the manuscript, the crossing out, I imagine the man. And there’s a simple truth. Something written by hand brings a singular human presence that the typewriter or the computer cannot confer. There’s plenty of good writing done that way, but when you simply glance at the page, it could be the work of anyone. But when you’ve written something by hand, the only person who could have done it is you. It’s unmistakable you wrote this, touched it, laid hands and eyes upon it. Something written by hand is a piece of your personality on paper. Typed words are not a fair swap for handwriting, for what is, in a way, a little relic of you. Why do we even know the name John Hancock, among all the signatories of the Declaration of Independence? Because he signed in handwriting so florid that it has become a catchphrase for signing your name.

There are still many people, even many writers, who write by hand. At the outset of his memoirs President Barack Obama described working with a yellow legal pad and a roller-ball pen. “I still like writing things out in longhand, finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness,” he wrote.

Jennifer Egan, a novelist who has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, says she, too, writes in longhand on legal pads, “because it seems to do a much better job of unlocking my unconscious, which is where the good ideas all seem to be.” Then she types it all into her computer without rewriting, makes an outline after reading it over, rewrites by hand on the hard copy, then enters the rewrites in the computer to generate a new draft. (Although, she feels obliged to add, her penmanship “is dreadful — in fact my writing is very hard for even me to read, and that seems to work in favor of the method I’ve described above, because it makes the writing process literally blind.”)

“I’m grateful that I learned script,” she says, “as so many kids do not today, because I wouldn’t have the flow to use this method otherwise.”

The novelist Mary Gordon has a stockpile of new notebooks that she suspects she may not live long enough to deplete entirely. “I feel like the rhythm of the words gets mirrored in the movement of my hand and the speed of my blood. And it slows me down, which is a good thing,” she says. Then she types into the computer, and completely retypes for every subsequent draft. In her case the penmanship is excellent: “I went to Catholic school,” she says with no need for further explanation. She knows that fewer and fewer writers work as she does, and that the computer will leave fewer traces of the process of revision for writers to come, and for the institutions that traditionally have stored their papers for posterity. “At some point there won’t be any papers,” Gordon says. “There aren’t going to be any drafts. They will disappear inside the computer.”

Of course there have long been writers who did not write by hand. Nietzsche used a typewriter because his eyesight was going. Mark Twain was the first significant writer to hand in a typewritten manuscript, Life on the Mississippi, typed by his secretary. Henry James dictated directly to his secretary, perhaps because he may have had what we now know as carpal tunnel syndrome. His secretary swore that after his death she was still getting dictation from him, but nothing was ever published posthumously.

Still, some forms seem simply antithetical to typing. There’s a famous photograph of Sylvia Plath sitting on a stone wall, with a teeny little typewriter in her lap, and it looks preposterous, like an ill-wrought prop for a magazine shoot.

Poetry needs to be written by hand, doesn’t it? Rafael Campo, the doctor poet, thinks so. “That physical act is what makes a poem come alive,” he says. “And unlike other writing, a poem has a physical shape, a physical dimension on the page. It does not have the block arrangement of prose.” Maybe Plath used that teeny typewriter for her prose work. Her poetry is handwritten, writing that looks more like printing than cursive. The most interesting piece of it is the clean copy she made of the poem “Ariel” for fellow writer Al Alvarez. The poem is full of fury, but on the copy she made for Alvarez, at the bottom, Plath has drawn the kind of stylized little flower that young girls draw in their notebooks. It’s wildly inappropriate to the material but deeply reflective of the person, a good-girl coda to a crescendo of rage. All by itself it tells a story.

Handwriting tells a story. In mystery novels threatening notes are almost always written in what is described as block print; cursive would give the game away. It is personal, identifiable. Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria relies heavily on letters, and she says it is not only the prose but the penmanship that spoke to her. “I could see the emphatic punctuation points, the double underlining for emphasis, the second thoughts, the loops growing larger when writing carefully, and the letters flattening, becoming less legible when she was angry,” says the biographer. The queen spoke through her handwriting. The signature of Queen Elizabeth I, the brilliant, strong-minded monarch who faced plots and detractors because of her gender and the circumstances of her birth, is a remarkable tell, the z underlined with artistic curlicues, the b crowned with a flourish, the thing ended with something almost a colophon, a hybrid of a flower and a cross. It is the signature of someone who is Someone, and who wants to put the world on notice of that fact. Across centuries it speaks.

Anna Quindlen is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared on fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists. She is the author of many novels: Object Lessons, One True Thing, Black and Blue, Blessings, Rise and Shine, Every Last One, Still Life with Bread Crumbs, and Miller’s Valley. Her memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, published in 2012, was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Her book A Short Guide to a Happy Life has sold more than a million copies. While a columnist at The New York Times she won the Pulitzer Prize and published two collections, Living Out Loud and Thinking Out Loud. Her Newsweek columns were collected in Loud and Clear.

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