Friday, 23 January 2009

The Right Kind of Quill

This week, I got a present. A friend came across an old-fashioned typewriter in a yard sale, and $10 later, walked away hauling a banged up box with what she thought would be a wonderful present for me. She was right. It didn’t matter to me that not all keys worked, nor that they were actually in Cyrillic alphabet. I was delighted at the opportunity to bang away nonsensical sentence fragments at the machine, making as much noise as possible. It reminded me of the irrationality of my own and other writers’ preoccupation (read: obsession) with writing implements.

It make sense that musicians attach great importance to how finely made or tuned their instruments are; that painters obsess about softness of their brushes. These preoccupations appear rational, even necessary, since their artistic output depends directly on the quality of their artistic tools. But writers? Really?

It is hard to deny that Mrs. Dalloway or A Hundred Years of Solitude would be identical if they were put down on paper by pencil, pen, quill, typewriter, or were dictated to a secretary who wrote it down in shorthand. Yet the fascination remains, often translated to romanticization of writing implements of prior eras. Today some writers still write longhand, or use typewriters, despite the omnipresent word-processors. This seemingly time-consuming regression is telling. The appeal could be of a physical kind. The further back in history one gets, the more embodied the activity of writing becomes. It grounds, physically, the metaphysical output. It embodies, anchors, the weight of the words. But that weight comes at a price.

While the idea of etching words into clay tablets appears romantic, revising the text on the tablets would be quite annoying. Nostalgia for the embodied physical labour of writing might be quickly cured with the convenience of the ‘delete’ button. And so we can afford to romanticize the gritty, messy, physical act of writing of the past eras, before returning to the tidy comfort of our labor-light word-processors.

2 comments:

allanmcdougall said...

As a copywriter, sometimes I just need a pen and paper. I need to draw flowcharts, free write, write synonyms and antonyms above, beside, and under sentence fragments or random thoughts. You can do this with a word processor, but there's something about the tactility. Perhaps this is the same draw of a typewriter for other writers.

I think readers use special implements too: bookmarks! I don't know about you, but I feel compelled to use bookmarks that match the book I'm reading.

Maja Djikic said...

Hi Allan

I think you are right. There is something about tactility that is important for writers, copywriters (as in your case), and readers. That could be the reason why electronic books never took off.

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