Confession of a Handwriter

Disclaimer: Yes,  I realize the irony.

This is a confession. It is the case that I have written all but three of my undergrad essays by hand, in pencil, single spaced on loose-leaf paper.  I then proceeded to type them up. Why? one might ask, would I do such a thing? how time consuming! How tedious! Handwriting was actually, and still is for the most part, more efficient for me because I think better by hand, and on paper.  It was only when a friend of mine told me that for my GRE I would be required to write two essays on a computer screen in 30 minutes each that I began to train myself in screen-thinking. I spent that semester typing up my papers on screen and thinking on screen. Thinking on screen does not come easily or naturally for me, but practice has helped. After writing my GRE I have resumed my enjoyable practice of hand writing essays. Yes, even the 5000 word ones. Perhaps I will even hand write my thesis. The following is an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” (which can be accessed in full, here) as published in What Are People For? Read it. Enjoy it. Test yourself and see if you can think on paper, if you can think by hand.

“At first glance, writing may seem to nearly so much an art of the body as, say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands. Reading aloud what we have written – as we must do, if we are writing carefully – our language passes in at the eyes, out at the mouth, in at the ears; the words are immersed and steeped in the senses of the body before they make sense in the mind. They cannot make sense in the mind until they have made sense in the body. Does shaping one’s words with one’s own hand impart character and quality to them, as does speaking them with one’s own tongue to the satisfaction of one’s own ear? There is no way to prove that it does. On the other hand, there is no way to prove that it does not, and I believe that it does.

The act of writing language down is not so insistently tangible an act as the act of building a house or playing the violin. But to the extent that it is tangible, I love the tangibility of it. The computer apologists, it seems to me, have greatly underrated the value of the handwritten manuscript as an artifact. I don’t mean that a writer should be a fine calligrapher and write for exhibition, but rather that handwriting has a valuable influence on the work written. I am certainly no calligrapher, but my handwritten pages have a homemade, handmade look to them that both pleases me in itself and suggests the possibility of ready correction. It looks hospitable to improvement. As the longhand is transformed into typescript and then into galley proofs and the printed page, it seems increasingly to resist improvement. More and more spunk is required to mar the clean, final-looking lines of type. I have the notion – again not provable – that the longer I keep a piece of work in longhand, the better it will be.

To me, also, there is a significant difference between ready correction and easy correction. Much is made of the ease of correction. Much is made of the ease of correction in computer work, owing to the insubstantiality of the light-image on the screen; one presses a button and the old version disappears, to be replaced by the new. [I must interject and admit that this troubles me also. I confess to having several copies of some essays saved under unabridged, abridged 1, abridged 2, etc.] But because of the substantiality of paper and the consequent difficulty involved, one does not handwrite or typewrite a new page every time a correction is made. A handwritten or typewritten page therefore is usually to some degree a palimpsest; it contains parts and relics of its own history – erasures, passages crossed out, interlineations – suggesting that there is something to go back to as well as something to go forward to. The light-text of a computer screen, by contrast, is an artifact typical of what can only be called the industrial present, a present absolute. A computer destroys the sense of historical succession, just as do other forms of mechanization. The well-crafted table or cabinet embodies the memory of (because it embodies respect for) the tree it was made of and the forest in which the tree stood. The work of certain potters embodies the memory of that the clay was dug from the earth. Certain farms contain hospitably the remnants and reminders of the forest or prairie that preceded them. It is possible even for towns and cities to remember farms and prairies. All good human work remembers its history. The best writing, even when printed, is full of intimations that it is the present version of earlier version of itself, and that its maker inherited the work and the ways of earlier makers. It thus keeps, even in print, a suggestion of the quality of the handwritten page; it is a palimpsest.”

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2 comments on “Confession of a Handwriter

  1. dbarber says:

    I used to have to write by hand. That’s no longer the case, but for the longest time, i couldn’t think or write if i had to type. For instance, i wrote my whole dissertation by hand.

    • Kampen says:

      Nice! I also just find a stack of handwritten pages aesthetically pleasing. Of course there is plenty I do on screen as well and this kind of work has its own set of reminders. For example, typed and printed work, with the erasure of the history of the text, need not be interpreted as autonomous work; rather, it is perhaps a more explicit reminder that we don’t have direct access to the meaning of the text.

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