Years ago, Lynn gave me a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen. It's a simple silver cylinder, about five inches long. At the base is an oval with his initials engraved, that he would have used to stamp the wax that would seal a letter. The nib is long and larger than a typical fountain pen nib today -- it's a dip pen, so the nib had to hold a page's worth of ink. It works superbly.
My replica was made in Germany; Jefferson had his made by William Cowen, from Richmond, and described it as one of the best pens he'd ever used. I can't quarrel with him on that. I use it regularly and it is certainly a finer pen than three-fifths of the rest of mine.
When I was teaching the honors course on intellectual property and the internet, I would bring that pen in to one of the early classes. I'd send it, with a bottle of ink, and a couple of sheets of fine linen paper, around the seminar table, and ask the students to write with it a bit -- and then to imagine using that tool for all of those millions of words that Jefferson wrote over his lifetime. How does it change the way that you approach your writing, I'd ask them, when you're using a tool like that, rather than a keyboard? When erasing and revising is as much work as it is using that technology, you think much more carefully about every line before you even begin to write your sentence.
I've been thinking about that as I've been reading Gay Talese's A Writer's Life, in particular after the part where he describes his writing method. After experimenting with using a couple of computers, he ended up back with his tried and true method -- pencil and yellow lined paper, working and re-working each sentence until he thought he had it right, before going on to the next one. Then typing up the handwritten pages and going back to revise again.
When I was in my teens, writing by hand, or even at the typewriter, frustrated me because I couldn't get the words out as fast as they seemed to be forming in my mind. In the late eighties, when I was able to write with a computer on a regular basis, I thought, at first, that this was much better -- but I found, instead, that I became sloppy. When you're not forced to slow down, and carefully choose every word, then any word will do. And when you're not being careful about the words you choose, you're not forced to be careful about your thinking. Hence the very sloppy thinking that permeates most blogs.
Even when I'm traveling (except when the schedule just doesn't allow it), I start every day by picking out a fountain pen and writing in a bound journal on fine paper. I try to sort through what happened yesterday and what my plans for the day ahead are. I fuss about my failings and vow to do better. I imagine the things that I still hope to achieve.
Now, when I'm writing at the keyboard, it is much like doing sculpture -- I get the rough mass laid out and then go back and refine and shape and polish. I test each word and each sentence. I sound them out aloud to see if the rhythms feel right and make sense in the context of what I'm trying to say. Rarely do I feel that I've ever gotten it exactly right, but eventually you just have to let the sentences go and hope that you can do better the next time.
Thought and language are indivisibly bound together. I was sitting at a breakfast counter once, sipping a bloody mary, my ears still ringing from the clubs the night before, writing in my journal. The pretty waitress, who'd been trying to figure me out for some time said, "So, are you a writer?"
I get that question a lot when I'm sitting in a restaurant or a bar scribbling away. I usually just smile and say, "Not really -- I just don't know what I'm thinking until I've written it down." It's a glib answer, designed to get a smile -- but that doesn't mean that it's not true.