PEN AND PAPER BETTER FOR TRAVEL WRITING?
When I was thinking through the many possibilities for the outline and design and ethos of this blog i had an idea that I could write these posts on the move – pen on paper, sitting on a rock, or in a boat, or up a tree – and then photograph the pages and post them. I was looking for the least reliance on computers, and the shortest amount of time spent at a keyboard, whilst still being able to post weekly pieces, and this seemed a great idea.
I tried it. And it looked poor. A simple, easy to read, magazine-article style of post was paramount on my list, and handwriting the blog and posting as photographs of the resulting pages was more time consuming, far less pleasing to the eye and generally wrong.
So, now the posts are still written by hand, but then I type them up and post them in more conventional format.
But thinking through all the above meant appreciating the many advantages of paper over screens, and especially for travelling, on slow adventures or in day-to-day life.
- Pens work without electricity.
- ...and work indoors, outdoors, in all weathers and temperatures.
- Some of the most admirable modern authors – Annie Proulx, is just one of them – insist that writing by hand is key to writing well.
- Plenty of earlier 20th Century writers – especially travel writers – wrote by hand rather than on typewriters.
- Everyone prior to the 20th Century, perforce, wrote by hand – they had no choice, other than dictation – in recording words up to the point where a MS was typeset. Plenty of good writing before the advent of computers, and as much good writing produced after their arrival but despite them.
- Handwritten MS will have greater and greater value in the future – both as curiosities, and in monetary terms for those of valued authors – because they will be far rarer.
- Buying stationary is always a joy - see Muji, below - and is possible even in the remotest village of the furthest flung country. A school exercise book decorated with cartoons of Ganesh, or a Rotoring-copy pen will last for ever and bring back memories of the trip they were bought on.
- Buying a computer is always an unwelcome matter of necessity and computer shops suck the blood - and huge amounts of money - from your life. And you'll still be disappointed and frustrated by your purchase. And it'll be redundant and junk within five years, if it runs that long.
- When writing by hand crossings out, italics, bold, underlinings, foreign words and foreign punctuation, even whole alphabets, are quicker to insert.
- The word-processor is to hand-writing what the car is to the horse; new and shiny, and faster and we're all dazzled by the novelty and are quick to overlook the millennia of experience in writing (and riding) that have formed us and our cultures. Like the pace of horse (and foot) travel, slower writing can be far more rewarding, and produce a totally different experience.
- Writing by hand on paper IS a different experience from writing on a keyboard and looking at a screen. One does not choose, and cannot choose, the same words and their order, and the shape of a piece of writing when using a computer. The process and the way one thinks are demonstrably different; not necessarily worse or better, but different.
- You are far more likely to break, or have stolen a laptop – especially when travelling. True it's easier to lose a pen or pencil; but you can carry numerous spares and they're cheap to replace.
- The paper and pen equivalent of the 'blue screen of death' is a smudge, or a tear.
- You can write with a pen/pencil anytime, anywhere. I wrote the hand-written original of this sprawled in a chair picked to be in the sun – no screen glare – and then added to it on a walk using a stub of pencil and a bus timetable found in my pocket.
- You can write on anything with anything. Menus, napkins, skin, jeans...use your imagination. And in ink, graphite (that's why it's called that...), blood, berry juice...use more of your imagination.
- The act of writing by hand creates an act of memory, in a way that typing on a keyboard doesn't. I can recall pretty much the general gist of every one of the thousands of notes i've written over the past decades. Genuinely. There's stuff on my hard-drive I don't remember writing and didn't know I had; most pleasingly i found some 40,000 words of a book i'd erased from my psyche, but not from a portable hard-drive which i've now resurrected. Does that make computers better or worse?
- People are still intrigued by – and i'd go so far as to say culturally programmed over millennia to be seduced by – handwriting and so read pen and paper notes, letters, MS, graffiti, tattoos with added concentration and thought. If I really want to make something happen or need someone to do something (surely the whole point of any writing?) then I write a letter, by hand, thoughtfully, sincerely and especially if to do with affairs of the heart. It works.
- There's a magic in writing that comes from the shared history of making marks on some pressed-flat vegetable fibres with something liquid in a contrasting colour – or pressing a stylus into clay, or chipping out dots and lines on a rock – that runs back in time to the Sumerians, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians, to Medieval monks, quill wielding Chaucer and to Trollope balancing his writing box on his knee as he rode trains around Ireland. These are all good things to be associated with. And to be a part of, and to add to.
- I can still read diary entries I made as a 7 and 8 year old (if I so wanted). Virtually everything I wrote over a decade from mid-80s to the mid-90s, on the first three word-processors I owned, is lost to unreadable, defunct formats.
- I may be able to write faster on a keyboard but I can't write better at that speed, and so end up rewriting, crossing out and editing what I get down, all of which actually makes writing by hand where I usually get the right words down in the first draft a faster route to a finished MS.
- Writing by hand is a craft – not some bastardised office-job.
- Oh, and one can doodle, or put in a diagram to illustrate something when writing by hand.
- And add notes in the margin. And dashes of hi-liter.
- A paper MS carries the actuality of real life; a coffee stain, a squashed mosquito, perfume, burns, rubbings and crossings out. The paper itself.
- If you've written something you know stinks, then there is nothing more satisfying that screwing up the page and sending it sailing across the room towards the bin with an angry yell. It brings closure in a way that clicking and dragging something to the virtual waste-bin on a screen never does.
- I like my Waterman Hemisphere fountain pens. I don't seem to lose them. They keep on working for the five or six years each one lasts me [see info box below]. One or other of them has accompanied me to Timbuktu and beyond into the Sahara, across Patagonia on a horse, around Ireland in a sea-kayak, on innumerable long walks, cycle trips, x-country ski jaunts – constant companion on all slow adventures by nearly every form of slow travel bar swimming. Occasionally it's hard to find ink cartridges for them in out of the way places - but life is full of fun challenges.
- You can always borrow a Biro, buy a pencil or nib into a bookies and get a free one.
- So, I first wrote this in black ink with a Waterman pen on a yellow legal pad and added bits to it scribbled on various scraps of paper...now, here comes the cunning, new media bit; to keep a record of the papers you don't want to type up just photograph them and store them on a computer, or an SD card, or on a memory stick. Then, file those papers, or throw them away, or do what you want; you've seamlessly joined the world of quill and velum to that of Gigabytes and processors. Those pages you want to straddle those two worlds you type up, so you have 'em in both formats; on paper and on screen.
- Learn to touch-type. It's worth the week i spent mastering the keyboard blind many years ago. It took me around half an hour to key this in as a transcription of the handwritten MS. It would have taken long, tedious, back breaking, eye-straining hours to actually use the computer to compose it on. By comparison being my own secretary in a typing-pool - basically, taking dictation from myself - is a soft job.
- Keep it simple. Be free. Have slow adventures. Write about them.
County Cork - 6 September 2012
Waterman pens - I use the Hemisphere - are great; they're tough, never seem to leak (even at altitude, or in plane cabins under pressure), the cartridges are usually easy enough to find and there's also a fill-your-own reservoir for using with bottled ink. My original ones came with medium gold-plated nibs, but i've changed to a fine stainless steel nib which suits my style of writing better. BUT if you use a Waterman pen as much as i do you'll find that the retaining 'click' rim on the cap wears out and the cap becomes looser and looser and finally won't stay on, making a perfectly good, lifetime-quality pen unusable; I've worn out two so far, both within five or six year. And - here's the bigger BUT - Waterman Pens have a frustrating and useless customer service ethos. I sent five or six emails looiking for the price on a replacement cap. Their stock response was them insisting that i send the pen to them for an assessment and a quote to fix the problem. When i finally got an answer i was quoted a price just for the cap that came very close to the cost of buying a whole new Hemisphere pen from an online pen shop. Plus an extra and rather excessive charge for postage. I found all of this incredibly irritating. But - small but, this time - i still like the pens. So, i just got a new one. And will accept the paradox of liking the product, but not the company that makes it.
If you're in Ireland and in the market for a proper pen, (Waterman or any other marque), i fully recommend a pleasant hour or so test-driving different models at Pen Corner, College Green, Dublin. They're nice people, they know pens, and the shop has history of the kind to make you realise that buying a good pen that will last for years (or decades if the cap didn't come off) and that is a pleasure to write with constitutes an investment approaching the spiritual.
People often comment on the note-pad arrangement in the picture below. It fits into the breast pocket of a shirt, which is where you want to have your note-taking kit if note-taking is your thing. I made the leather holder myself; hand-sewn oak-tanned pig-skin. It's got a sheath to hold the pen, a pocket that takes essential cards and bits of paperwork, and another pocket that holds a replaceable notebook. Being good leather it only gets better with age and use.
I use Muji notebooks for notes. Muji make excellent stationary, anyway, and their A6 dark-grey covered notebooks have superb quality paper in a sewn and taped binding. The paper takes fountain pen ink beautifully. They're exactly twice the size needed; so just cut 'em in half. Two for the price of one. And they're already cheap. http://www.muji.eu/pages/online.asp?V=1&Sec=12&Sub=50&PID=3664
[A rant; for years i used WH Smith's right-sized - so A7 - spiral-bound notebooks. They were ok paper, reasonably cheap and practical enough. Then it became obvious that some bean-counter was rationalising production costs. Over a short period of time the number of pages was reduced, and the quality of the paper plummeted, and the wire spiral binding was reduced to too few spirals to work properly. And for these 'improvements' they doubled and then trebled the price. The new note books were unusable, so off i went in search of another option, a quest that led me to the far, far better - and cheaper - Muji books. Since then, wherever i have the choice, i shun WH Smith's and buy my newspapers, magazines and - certainly - stationary somewhere else. That's how customer relations work.]
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