Inky Breadcrumbs and the Forgotten Magic of Writing by Hand

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Hey, writer! When was the last time you took a good look at your own hands? I mean, a really, really good long look?

Sure, they’re fluttering in and out of the periphery of vision over the course of any average day, assisting in the picking up and setting down of life’s dull and delightful objects. But, most often, their task feels secondary – to hold up for inspection the things you’ve deemed far more fascinating: smartphones, babies, books, burritos.

There’s little incentive to notice them. And this strikes me as odd. So do it now. Have a good, long gander. What do you see? Look carefully: your hands are miraculous, surprising, ordinary, and, for my money, entirely underappreciated.

You’re in good retroactive company. I’m first writing this by hand, in fact, down here in Mexico, though by the time it reaches its final destination (your eyeballs), it will most certainly have been converted into little perfect lines set neatly upon a screen somewhere or other. I am fine with that, but I’d like us to travel backwards together for a moment, so we might better appreciate the strange and wonderful deconversion that is right now taking place.

Let’s jump backwards a couple weeks, to a kayaking trip I took in the Sea of Cortez. To the moment when I rediscovered my hands.

Picture me there, wedged into my sleek, water-going canoe, still land bound, beached atop a thin spit of glittering sand in southern Baja, dodging hornets and practicing my stroke.

My tour guide, Sergio, came by and gently adjusted my wonky grip on the double-ended paddle. As he did, he pointed to the constellation of tiny white and pink scars along the topside of my right hand and joked, “You must be a boxer.”

It’s true that I’ve been hard on my hands: a lifetime of immodest tree climbing, reckless vegetable chopping, and bare-bones travel in bug-infested climes has marked them up and good.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

I’m no prizefighter, but because I earn my (modest) living as a writer, my hands are, in a sense, also my fortune, my indispensable weapons, shepherding my thoughts from head to screen or paper day in and day out, to varying degrees of success and financial recompense.

Funny, then, how rarely I think about them. I never even really noticed all the scars I’d accumulated until Sergio pointed them out to me that balmy day in Mexico. How could someone who writes for a living spend so little time thinking about or even looking at her hands?

I suspected immediately that technology was to blame. Because I like blaming things on technology, but also because of the inclinations inherent to my own writerly process. I love to journal and sketch, but I do my serious writing almost exclusively on the computer. And I’m just old enough to recognize the novelty of this fact: I was born in 1981, to a father who worked at a supercomputer company and dug new gadgets, and I can still recall the day he brought home our very first Apple Macintosh computer. It was 1984. Reagan was about to be reelected president. I was three years old. I stood in our foyer, rapt, watching Dad struggle to haul the large white box with the stylized apple on the side of it in through the garage door, his face alight. My sisters and I crawled all over that magical white box like overgrown ants, feelers up, sensing that something special was about to happen to us. And it did.

I’ve done my best thinking with the help of a keyboard screen pretty much ever since. It feels like a superpower, hooking my brain up to a keyboard and letting the mushy contents pour incongruously forth. The fact that my penmanship is completely atrocious is rendered, suddenly, irrelevant. My hands can track time with the speed of thought. I am superhuman!

In some sense, Microsoft Word is probably deeply responsible for the contours of my creative process when it comes to writing. It has calibrated my brain to think in cuttable and pasteable chunks, and to create in a dump, arrange, dump, arrange methodology.

It works well. I prefer to think in chunks, because this approach seems to mimic the organic processes of idea generation, which also happens in non-linear bits and blurbs. As I rearrange, I make new connections and clarify my conceptions. It feels so easy. So right.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

One strange consequence of my exclusive allegiance to the medium, though, is that when I’m writing, I rarely, rarely look at my hands. I look, instead at a screen, on which my words appear as if by magic. Oh, the hands keep on at their important work outside that visual frame. But they are often tapping away in obscurity, for all intents and purposes, invisible. I was trained this way. I can still recall the typing lessons I took in fourth grade, when Mrs. Hobizal placed pieces of white computer paper over our hands, thereby forcing us to hammer out strings of practice text without looking down:

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

We went at it, again and again, for weeks and weeks, until we were a veritable menagerie of pint-sized transcribers, our small hands pounding furiously away at the sticky beige keys. And it worked. By college, I could type 80 words a minute.

But, surely, something organic and analogous became lost along the way, didn’t it?

Let’s reverse course, again, forward from the fourth grade computer lab and back to the recent past, to Mexico, and to what happened just a few days after the kayaking trip, at the start of the portion of my trip that I’d intended to use as a writing retreat. Tragedy! The cord for my MacBook began to fray, right at the joint that connected it to the surge protector, over the course of two equatorial days. I tried to press the wires back together, to jiggle and rig the thing into submission, but all I got in response was a few nefarious sparks, a weird burny smell, and a mild zap to the thumb. The thing was dead. And, as a result, my MacBook was out of commission. My plans were dashed.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

I’d time-traveled, backwards, unwillingly. Pen and paper were my only available recourse. But I never work with pen and paper! It hardly seemed even worth trying. It just wasn’t even the way I thought anymore.

I pouted furiously for a day or so, then I grew interminably bored and reluctantly took up my travel journal. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I wrote till my phalanges were sore, and then I wrote some more. Little mini-essays, lists of ideas and future goals, meditations on regrets, all summoned forth in my sloppy, singular chicken scrawl, dozens of pages replete with arrows and strikethroughs and little barely legible addendums crowding the margins out of existence. It was painful, but also sort of enlightening.

Even after I gave in a few days later and trekked to the next town over to purchase a brand new, exorbitantly priced MacBook cord, I kept on taking up the notebook. And I kept on thinking about these hands of mine.

I concede, now, the sloppy, organic (that word AGAIN!) elegance of working by hand. To watch as ones fingers grip a pen and litter words across the blank page is its own kind of magic. As with a computer, I am focused largely on the words, but I’m looking at the magical hand, too, with its 27 fragile bones, its meaty, quivering tendons, its constellations of scars and freckles and moles.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

I take up a pen, and I am, suddenly, intimately connected to the process of creation; I require no intermediary or intercessor, no translator. This feels a lot like what the Zen Buddhists call Direct Transmission – unfettered experience of truth – and I am doing it all by myself.

No doubt, writing by hand is a messy, sloppy affair. There is no “delete” key. Only strikes through and exings out. When I create work by hand, I toss out behind me a trail of inky breadcrumbs that I can follow backwards, later, to the sources of my inspiration. I can backpedal. I can examine my process and trace my patterns of thought as they spread and blossom outward like cracks upon the sugar-spun winter ice.

I can give abandoned metaphors their due elegy by permitting them to live, forever, at the scattershot outer reaches of each page on first, second, third drafts. I can scribble and scratch and forgive myself the false starts and niggling imperfections without needing to erase them from existence forever.

Writing by hand asks us to acknowledge and examine process in some rather profound ways. We cannot hide from the imperfection of our iteration, our half-formed ideas, our vague and later-junked conceptions.

A printed page is a pretty thing to behold, no doubt. Crisp, clean, with no mumbly half-thoughts congregating in the corners, no run-on sentences clobbering up the atmosphere, no spontaneous reworkings sprawling themselves immodestly across the mid-sections of our gathered thoughts. No rouge modifiers, ever late to the party and flanking themselves willy-nilly across the words and lines.

For any writer, the computer is a magical instrument. It keeps our hands free of callouses and ink stains, pliant and unsullied as a baby’s rear end. It eases the path, it keeps the shoulders and neck from cramping themselves into an upside down question mark. It abides ceaseless reworking. It lets us organize our work in non-linear and unconventional ways if we please.

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

Photo by Erin J. Bernard

But it also erases the vital understory of How We Got Here. And that, too, is a tale worthy of the telling, don’t you think?

So I challenge you, dear writer, to challenge yourself – and to think more deeply about your own writing process – by changing up your own preferred medium once in awhile.

You’ll hate it. And for that reason, you’ll love it.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Inky Breadcrumbs and the Forgotten Magic of Writing by Hand

  1. Fernan Carrière says:

    I’m old enough to to have learned to write with a pencil, as well as with a dip pen (basically a nib with no reservoir, that one dips in an ink bottle). I went through high school, college and university, witing essays by hand – essays that went up to 20 pages or more. I did not touch a typewritter until I was in my mid-teens, and used them only when absoutely necessary. Computers first came in my life in the early eighties, when I was well into the fourth decade of my life. Then, the world changed… for the next quarter century, I adopted new tools to write, and neglecting the old tools that I uses, including my fountain pen, the one my parents gave to me when I started high school.

    A few years ago, just as I was about to retire, I realized that I could no longer write by hand properly. I had trouble reading my own handwriting. When I was a young adult, I was pround of my handwriting.

    I ventured to re-learn to write by hand… and to start studying the history of writing, and to reflect on this activity. I have come to the conclusion that the tools we use to write, and the very nature of writing in itself, moulds the mind. We do not think the same way. I wish I could live long enough to witness how our minds will change over the upcoming decades, even centuries, like they did when writing was developed 5000 years ago in what is Iraq today, when the Greek alphabet was developed, when printing was developed in both China and Europe at about the same time five centuries ago.

    We are living through a significant period in the evolution of civilisation, and we are barely aware doing so… too much noise, and distractions along the way.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Hmmmm … Writing moulds the mind … This has some mind-blowing implications. I think we as humans are uncomfortable with the proposition that we could have become different iterations of ourselves were our circumstances or our TOOLS altered in some way. And yet it makes absolute sense. I took a class in evolutionary biology as an undergrad and the teacher once said that our ancestors were only able to get extra-smart after they learned to walk on two legs, because this freed up the hands for tinkering, which made our brains get bigger and even changed their shape. And the process is never-ending. I sometimes look around my office and admire all my “technologies,” and then I wish in the same moment that I could invite my great-grandchildren to step into my reality, for just a moment, and give their two cents. They would probably die laughing at the antiquity of my prized gadgets. I accept this. But it’s hard to wrap my mind around it at the same time. Every moment feels like the pinnacle. But, of course, it, too, will eventually fall away into obscurity. That makes me feel tiny, albeit in a satisfying way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Emily Livingstone says:

    Nice post on writing, technology, and the things we sometimes get in the habit of or take for granted. Your photos caught my eye in the “Reader”! It’s been awhile since I’ve written by hand–maybe this will be something I do on New Year’s Day! If I do, I’ll write and link back to you–thanks!

    • erinjbernard says:

      Thanks, Emily! The New Year is a great time to challenge ourselves to mix things up. Some people hate on New Year’s resolutions, but I love the idea of starting fresh and getting better. I’d love to see what you come up with! Maybe this should be a regular thing for me, too?!

Thoughts? Objections? Curiosities? Your comment gets mine!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s