Writing by hand in the days of keyboards has become an art form, an anachronism, even an act of anarchy.
When you write with a pencil you can smell the graphite, with a pen the resins, wax and precious oils. The words as they loop across the page awaken something emotional and vaguely nostalgic.
For Zen monks, painting is a meditation. They keep the tip of the brush, their elbow and heart in a perfect triangle. This discipline allows the work to ‘happen’ without concern for rules or perspective. Writing by hand in this same way taps into a different part of your brain and uncovers feelings you never knew you had.
When I complete a blog or a chapter of a book, I print out the pages and read them in the living-room rather than my office. It is always good to surprise the work by changing the routine, by coming at it at an odd time or angle. I read the pages first in silence, then aloud.
I often pause during the correction stage, write PTO in the left column and add notes on the back of the page. My thoughts at this point always race along as if driven by some force outside myself. Next day, when I add the fresh material to the manuscript, the writing is always the best I can do, the best that’s in me. It will require no further editing or remoulding.
This work I think of as having been channelled more than written. It’s as if there is a hole at the top of my head and the universe has streamed the words down to my hand and across the page in a flood of mystical energy.
Writing by hand is a conflict between you and the blank page. You can’t feign your mood or trick your adversary. It knows you better than you know yourself. If I sit down with a notebook and wait for the channel to open, nothing happens. Prayers are a bit like that. They are only answered when you don’t ask.
Unlike the electronic pulses of a keyboard, when you write by hand you connect to that part of the brain where the creativity ducts lie hidden in the subconscious. For me, this fleeting gift from the Gods is a pleasure, but also a curse that I can’t open the tap in the universe and draw it down at will like Mozart with the notes and Nureyev with the dance.
Writing by hand is an esoteric tradition overwhelmed by computer programmes that autocorrect errors and ask if you want UK or US spelling. Emails have killed letter writing, once an indulgence that allowed writers to be obtuse, romantic, poetic. The Cloud stores everything and future generations will be denied the mystery of stumbling on granddad’s secret manuscript in the attic.
WRITING BY HAND DADA STYLE
David Bowie learned to use the cut-up technique, découpé in French, pioneered by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists including Francis Picabia, André Breton and Paul Eluard. The method is to write random lines on the same theme, then cut them into strips and arrange them until they grow into something surreal, moving or satirical. In this way, Bowie wrote some of the best songs of the 20th century.
JK Rowling is another devotee of writing by hand. Before she could afford a laptop, she sat up through the night in her modest bedsit in Edinburgh writing the first Harry Potter story in a notebook.
Handwriting is an art called calligraphy that began with the cuneiform script created in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, about 3200 BC. The script was designed as a system of counting and recording goods – no cuneiform novels have ever been found – and was recorded, not on parchment or scrolls, but clay tablets.
According to Andrew Robinson in his book The Story of Writing, the first person believed to have put a name to his work, in fact the first person’s name we know in recorded history, is not a writer, priest or king, but the accountant ‘Kushim’ in the city of Urak, what became known as Babylonia, a land where the people spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ.
The word calligraphy derives from the Greek words for beauty – kallos, and to write – graphein. The art of beautiful handwriting.
5 Good Reasons for Writing by Hand, according to Research by Oxford Learning.
- Stress relief – The act of writing by hand can reduce stress and improves focus and attention.
- Creativity and Learning – Making writing a regular habit increases creativity and keeps the brain sharp.
- Memory – Writing by hand has shown to improve memory and retention. It also involves more senses and motor neurons than typing on a keyboard.
- Feelings – Writing about feelings can improve mood and provide a sense of well-being. Writing by hand helps flesh out thoughts in an orderly manner and makes burdens feel lighter.
- Gratitude – Some studies show that writing about being grateful, especially before bed, improves sleep and creates a sense of well-being.
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Why writers write, even when nobody wants them to.
Calligraphy has been an art-form in many cultures as you have mentioned, also in Japan, where each brushstroke is an meditative action.
There is however having a great advantage to digital storage of information, having just read about the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, in 48 BC that was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world with generations of knowledge lost.
Whilst I take a pride in my Italic handwriting one could argue that those old travel logs might never be found or read, possibly better shared on a platform where anyone with an interest can read them.
In the same way we can get to read interesting blogs from our friendly ghostwriter.
Unfortunately handwriting will be probably be considered an eccentric art form in the future, but thank you for reminding us, I already feel myself reaching for my pen to make sure my Italic still flows smoothly.
I will now look up the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. The Nazis burned books. They are clearly dangerous objects and yet we all keep them on our shelves.
I am in general accord with what you say. My husband had a stall in Portobello Road, and he often bought items which were used in calligraphy in China and Asia – wonderfully decorated pen boxes from Kashmir, beautifully carved brush pots from China, illustrating the value of this art.
When I worked as an Early-Years teacher one of the ways in which we encouraged children to ‘mark-make’ (the precursor to writing) was to let the children see us writing and to see and use pieces of our handwriting – such as labels with their names and headings for displays of their work. But as time went on computer-written signs were used more and more in nursery and reception classes. Perhaps it was quicker and easier to do, looked neat
and visually attractive. But it also manifested a standard of perfection to which they could not aspire, and did the same for parents – we encouraged
parents to lead by example with writing, even if they felt their handwriting was not very good, as many did.
But I would like to say, in defence of emails, that amongst my family and
friends these have produced long and creative exchanges, being fast and easy, unlike letters for which you need decent paper, envelopes, a stamp
and trip to the letter box.
I could go on about monastic manuscripts and the devotion required to produce them, but I won’t except to say that one summer I had the honour
of working in the library shop of Trinity College, Dublin, where the Book of Kells was displayed, and drew admirers from all over the world.
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Great post, Clifford and what a fun image of Bowie. Interesting history about découpé, may give it a try sometime just for kicks. Hand writing gives our creativity time to process I think. As a kid back in pre-computer days I remember watching my mom arrange her articles on the living room floor.
Nice article on what feels like a dying practice. I forwarded it to my podcast partner John Nedwill who writes all his first drafts by hand.
In my mind, the burning of the Great Library in Alexandria is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the ancient world. I am disconnected from this travesty by millennia, yet a mere mention of this irrevocable loss of the world’s ancient knowledge causes a deep melancholy to come over me. Perhaps the only thing more depressing is when I actually put pen to paper, and I see the horrific state of my scrawl. Thankfully, for me, there is my “Word Synthesiser,” which reveals the message of my words, rather than the ugliness of my hand.
I still prefer to write letters, rather than use e-mails when it’s the right occasion. I feel that a real letter delivered from the mailbox in the front yard has more impact and meaning than something that is created out of electronic ether. When it comes to one of my own writing project, I still send a lot of physical letters out and I make paper copies of what I write as a record that goes with the project. For my current project, I am writing about a topic in history that occurred more than 70 years ago, so some of the people I write to are well into their 90s and only communicate through traditional letters. And with those people I communicate in French, an added wrinkle to it all.
Thank you for such an interesting post. I often think writing by hand is a lot like drawing – that connection (as you say) between the mind, the body and creating. The wonderful Lynda Barry often discusses this in her book on writing, What It Is. I find handwriting helps me to get the rubbish out. Not so much editing just a scrawl of words. And then when I reach the gleaming computer screen my mind is calmer somehow. Just my experience I guess.
I love the article, Clifford, and so agree with your angle on the importance of continuing the art of writing by hand. A lot of what you said about writing as an open chance is true for my process of creating art. True creation is a direct channeling of sorts.