Thursday, 16 October 2014

Conversations with writing tools

An extension of the self? A writer's aid? A depository of wisdom? "Our writing equipment", Nietzsche has said, " takes part in the forming of our thoughts." Writers have been known to be preoccupied with the type of writing instruments they use (Steinbeck searched for the perfect pencil, Kipling had to have a Waverley nib, Truman Capote alternated between pencil and typewriter, Proust used "plain and pointed" Sergent-Major nibsNabokov went for Ticonderogas), or they may be particular about the choice of ink (Dickens preferred blue, Roland Barthes revelled in coloured inks, Faulkner filled his fountain pen with a succession of inks without cleaning it first, Kipling loved Indian ink). 

Does the choice of writing equipment (the medium) influences writing style? There is a debate on the influence of inscription technologies on the development of human thinking (the "medium theory"). Goethe, for instance, declared that when inspiration came to him (usually at night) he found that he could write more readily with a pencil rather than with a pen as "the scratching and splattering of the pen" would cause confusion and "stifle a little inception in its birth". Nietzsche's writing style is said to be "tighter and more telegraphic" during the time he used the writing ball.

The ongoing conversation between writer and writing instrument is nowhere more vocal as in the instances when the writing tool itself becomes an entity:

Back in the 16th century Erasmus' calamus introduces itself as "the little reed pen" which has written so many large volumes by itself, guided however by the hand of its master. The reed pen boasts to have been preserved by Erasmus as sacred to the Muses and dedicated to Apollo but although it has produced so many immortal words, it is doomed to perish in obscurity. Lord Byron addresses his grey goose-quill as Nature's noblest gift, the author's pride, a slave to his thoughts, and obedient to his will, but it too like the reed of Erasmus before it  is condemned to be forgotten. The "honest" and "sacred" inkwell of Cavafy contains whole worlds in its ink - words that are almost mystically kept there for the poet to find and are reserved only for him as the inkwell will refuse them to any other after the poet's death.   

No mystical qualities for the pen of Seamus Heaney. It sits between his finger and his thumb, "snug as a gun" - an allusion to the "pen mightier than the sword" adage - and it is a toiling pen and a fighting pen which makes the man of letters equal to the toiler of the land: "But I've no spade to follow men like them / Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it."


  1. At my bedside table, I have a sharpened Koh-I-Noor 4B pencil, a German-made manual sharpener, and a small stack of scratch paper cut from old advertising flyers. With a wood-cased pencil, I just jot a hasty thought before sleeping or upon arising when needed, and don't have to fumble with an advancing mechanism, a cap, a rotating mechanism, an uncooperative nib, etc. I don't think it was a conscious decision of mine to have an always-ready pencil nearby. I wasn't aware of Goethe's preference.

    In the States, there's dismay among some people, myself among them, that instruction in cursive writing is being dropped in some schools. One of the voiced concerns, I think, is that there may be unknown cognitive effects in dropping cursive instruction, with all its interaction between mind, hand, and writing implement, in favor of "keyboarding" skills. Jack/USA

  2. I'm not sure that instruction in cursive writing is so important. Why children should be taught to write in a similar way, i.e. joining letters. Encourage handwriting yes, but why promote uniformity?

  3. Palimpsest, I'm thinking that penmanship offers cognitive benefits that may not yet be fully recognized until they're lost. Also, cursive offers a sort of everyman's artistry in a well-written unique signature, or hand-written note. Add to that the development of small-muscle motor skills, plus the thriftiness of pen or pencil and paper (maybe USD $3-5) over the computer (maybe USD $300 for starters). Plus, there's a part of me that bristles at the idea that in 2034 there may be a "signaturizer" machine to do the nasty work of writing a unique signature for people who have no ability to write a signature on their own.

    The debate is hardly ripe, though. The big proponents of dropping cursive seem to be schoolteachers who want written work typed. I'm okay with that, but why toss out cursive instruction that has so many uses outside the classroom. Jack/USA