The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

The late, great neurologist and poetic science writer Oliver Sacks spent his entire life writing only by hand — an act he considered “an indispensable form of talking to [oneself].” In his wonderful reflection on the psychology of writing and what his poet-friend Thom Gunn taught him about creativity, Sacks observed how “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.”

This singular interplay between the manual and the mental, between the mechanics and the magic of writing, is what Ross Gay — another poet with a playful spirit and an expansive mind, whom Sacks would have gleefully befriended — considers in a passage from his immeasurably delightful Book of Delights (public library) — one of the most satisfying books of 2019.

Ross Gay

Having written his “essayettes” on delight by hand, Gay reflects on the “surprising and utter delight” of this mode of composition — a courageously countercultural delight, I must add as my own fingertips press into the cold plastic with the blind faith that an invisible wizardry of ones, zeroes, and silicon will translate motion into meaning. Gay writes:

The process of thinking that writing is, made disappearable by the delete button, makes a whole part of the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear (the scratch-out its own archive), which is the weird path toward what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is.

In a passage evocative of Lewis Thomas’s splendid meta-illustrations of the subtleties of language, he adds:

For instance, the previous run-on sentence is a sentence fragment, and it happened in part because of the really nice time my body was having making this lavender Le Pen make the loop-de-looping we call language. I mean writing.


Consequently, some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness, the accruing syntax, the not quite articulate pleasure that evades or could give a fuck about the computer’s green corrective lines (how they injure us!) would be chiseled, likely with a semicolon and a proper predicate, into something correct, and, maybe, dull. To be sure, it would have less of the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.

The evolution of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting across her thirties, forties, and fifties (Morgan Library & Museum; photograph: Maria Popova)

Couple with John Steinbeck on how the joy of handwriting helps us draft the meaning of life, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of analog human conversation and astronomer Maria Mitchell on the sewing needle as an instrument of the mind.

Published January 14, 2020




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