The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and How Writing by Hand Catalyzes Creativity

Every few years, a new anthology of essays on why writers write comes along. While most tend to be invariably excellent, one of the best presents I’ve ever received was a copy of the 2001 collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (public library). What made this particular tome special, besides the wonderful selection of essays by contemporary literary icons like Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, was that many of the essays were signed by their respective authors.

One of my favorite pieces in the volume comes from Mary Gordon, at the time in her early fifties, and is titled “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper.”

Gordon begins:

There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’

It’s a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the world’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involves notebooks and pens. I write by hand.

Like Anaïs Nin, who took great joy in making books manually, Gordon celebrates the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship:

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

In fact, the tool itself is a fanciful transporter, a gateway to a different sense of self:

My pen. It is a Waterman’s, black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon. Elizabeth Bowen, maybe, only French. Anna de Noialles, but played by Deborah Kerr. My pen is elegant, even if I’m wearing the terry robe whose frayed state suggests a fashion statement from a gulag. My ink is Waterman’s black. Once while traveling I could only find blue-black. I used it for a few weeks, but it made me feel like a punitive headmistress.

Gordon, who subscribes to Joan Didion’s cult of the notebook, goes on to describe her various notebooks, acquired during her travels and serving equally varied purposes — a small, soft-covered one from her last trip to Paris, several confectionary-colored ones from Orleans, a long, canary one for fiction and a square red one for journalism from Dublin, a hard turquoise one for literary criticism purchased across the street from the British Museum, a handful of Swedish ones in primary colors for her most uncensored journals. A fellow fan of diaries and letters, she then contributes to the daily routines of other famous writers a tour of her own:

So what do I do after I’ve played with my pen and notebooks like a time-killing kindergartner? Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

I listen to music, often string quartets or piano sonatas. … I enjoy the music and the rhythm of the mindless copying. Or not entirely mindless; I’m luxuriating in the movement of the words which are, blessedly, not mine. I’m taking pleasure in the slow and rapid movements of my pen, leaving its black marks on the whiteness of paper. … I can’t listen to music when reading poetry or fiction. Into the notebook I am using for the fiction I’m writing, I copy paragraphs whose heft and cadence I can learn from. And some days, if I’m lucky, the very movement of my hand, like a kind of dance, starts up another movement that allows me to forget the vanity, the folly, of what I am really about.

Nestled between the words of others, Gordon finds a certain comfort, soothing assurance that the road, while winding and often dark, has been traveled before and doesn’t lead into the abyss:

It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing, or of (as I do each morning) envying hod carriers, toxic waste inspectors, any of those practitioners of high and graceful callings that involve jobs it is possible to do.

(For a necessary antidote to this dystopian mindset of writing, take heart with Ray Bradbury, Amelia E. Barr, and Elizabeth Gilbert.)

Gordon concludes:

I don’t know what people who work on computers do to get themselves started. I hope never to learn firsthand.

We read Mary Gordon, then we use our hands and wrists in typing out her thoughts to catalyze our own.

For more wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Mary Gordon portrait via Columbia University

Published February 22, 2013




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