What Writers Look Like When They Write

Whenever an author does a public reading and invites the audience to ask questions, one question is nearly always posed: “When you write, do you use a computer or write in longhand?”

This question was more pertinent in the late 1980s, when personal computers were just beginning to be used in the mainstream, and many writers had to adjust to the new technology. But, oddly, the question persists. Last week, at a public reading that I attended, it was the first question.

Readers especially seem to enjoy the anomalies. John Irving is still well known today for writing in longhand in lined notebooks. Wendell Berry once said he refused to use a computer, because to do so would mean supporting electric utilities. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk writes on graph paper. Annie Proulx writes in longhand, because she believes “writing on a computer produces facile prose.” The great Michael Ondaatje uses Muji brand notebooks. Ian McEwan composes on the computer but tries out sentences in longhand. J.K. Rowling writes in longhand and then edits as she types the text into a computer, and if you care, uses black, not blue, ink.

In a now famous article in The Paris Review in 1958, George Plimpton described Ernest Hemingway’s writing practice:

A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.

When Hemingway starts on a project, he always begins with a pencil, using the reading board to write on onionskin typewriter paper. He keeps a sheaf of the blank paper on a clipboard to the left of the typewriter, extracting the paper a sheet at a time from under a metal clip that reads “These Must Be Paid.” He places the paper slantwise on the reading board, leans against the board with his left arm, steadying the paper with his hand, and fills the paper with handwriting, which through the years has become larger, more boyish, with a paucity of punctuation, very few capitals, and often the period marked with an X. The page completed, he clips it facedown on another clipboard that he places off to the right of the typewriter.

Hemingway shifts to the typewriter, lifting off the reading board, only when the writing is going fast and well, or when the writing is, for him at least, simple: dialogue, for instance.

The whole question of a writer’s tools used to annoy me, because it seemed the least interesting issue. Does it really make any difference what tools a writer uses? If you have a chance to ask authors a question, why not ask them something substantial or even challenging about their art?

Recently, I’ve become more sympathetic to the question. I’ve noticed that readers seem genuinely interested. Once, when the question was asked at a public reading, I looked at the audience and saw them eagerly awaiting the writer’s answer.

I’ve also heard writers whom I respect and admire seriously discussing the differences that pens and computers seem to make in their finished work.

And I have to admit that, in other artistic fields where I am not a practitioner, such as music and painting, I, too, am very interested in the tools. When I saw the film “Pollock,” I was struck by the artist’s technique of applying paint on canvas directly from a paint tube.

With my new sympathy, I have a couple of theories about why we want to know about the tools. In one sense, the tools are like “totems,” in the anthropological sense of the word. They are symbols of whatever power lies in writing, and we may treat them as if they themselves possessed that power. When I lived in England, I once visited a museum and stood in line to look at a desk on which, according to the museum, Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House 120 years earlier. At Mount Holyoke College, where John Irving wrote part of The World According to Garp, I opened a box in the college library’s Special Collections Room and discovered a draft manuscript of the novel.

The tools are also a reader’s way to begin to understand the mystery and magic behind the creative process. How is it, we all want to know, that a person conjures out of his or her own imagination a crowded World War I battlefield or records the dialogue of two people shyly discovering their first love. It’s like understanding the magic behind the sleight-of-hand in a card trick. When the question is asked, maybe the audience really wants to know: How do you do what you do? What do you look like when you’re writing?

In films, writers are usually portrayed as sitting at a desk in intense concentration and then invariably wadding up a sheet of paper and throwing it on the floor. In my own 40 years of hanging around writers, I’ve never actually seen a real writer do this. (Years ago, I worked for a boss whose version of wadding up paper was to fold a sheet of paper in half, precisely lining up the two edges of the paper, and then lay it gently in his wastebasket, as if he were committing it for burial.)

When he wrote, Dickens apparently walked around his room, speaking the voices of his characters out loud and then rushing to his desk to write down the dialogue. To prevent himself from wandering around when he was supposed to be writing, New Yorker writer John McPhee once used a bathrobe sash to tie himself to the armrest spindles of his desk chair. But I’m pretty sure these guys are exceptions. In fact, I suspect most writers at work are a pretty dull lot. They sit at desks, staring into space, and randomly typing.

Anyway, if someone ever asks me the question, I’ll say this: I work in a ground-floor office with a large window, looking out on a busy street. I type on an ordinary keyboard attached to a two-year-old HP desktop. My typing involves a four-finger, hunt-and-peck method, which a former colleague described as looking like a dog playing a piano. Sometimes, for revisions, I print out pages and mark them up with a mechanical pencil. I think I do this, because I first learned to edit back in the days before computers existed, and I like to see the original and the mark-ups together. I keep drafts in three-ring binders, with tabs for chapters. I don’t speak character voices, but I do read passages out loud as a way to spot unintended word repetition or awkward phrases. I don’t wad up paper and throw it on the floor; in fact, I rarely throw away anything. I store old drafts in bankers’ boxes that I stack against one wall. Unlike Hemingway, I don’t wear loafers, and I have never stood on the worn skin of a kudu, lesser or greater.


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