Prose: hot, fresh & handmade

The above is Gay Talese’s outline for his famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—which Esquire named the best article it has ever published. I was struck by its childlike creativity when I saw it in the Summer 2009 issue of the Paris Review, and it and the journal’s interview with Talese are now on line. His working method is idiosyncratic: writing notes and detailed outlines on the thin cardboard that comes with new men’s shirts. He also supposedly peers at his typed pages, pinned to the wall, through binoculars.

I was reminded of Talese’s playful or at least colorful approach by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal about the composition process of prominent writers, mostly novelists. Of seventeen writers, eight compose initially by hand, and Margaret Atwood alternates between handwriting and typing. Five compose at the keyboard. One, Richard Powers, lounges in bed and speaks into a computer that recognizes his voice. For two writers, their method wasn’t made clear.

But add Talese and John Irving, mentioned in a recent post, and handwriting first drafts seems more common than one would suppose in this age of the computer. And brainstorming and planning seem heavily skewed toward the sketched, pasted, storyboarded, jotted and otherwise handmade. Such organizing efforts themselves result in works of art.

I wonder if this is changing, with so many kids growing up keyboarding. But there’s something about that tactile connection—words are evidence of a way of thinking and seeing and feeling—and computers are cold and mechanical. In adolescence, I got the idea that the real pros typed, especially after I went to work as a journalist for a dozen years. We pounded out stories! Art takes time, though, drawing on the brain’s shy intuitive and wary unconscious realms.

Obviously many fine writers do this work at the keyboard, but just as obviously, many don’t. Poking around the web on this writing-process question, I was surprised by the allegiance of some writers to typewriters for first drafts. It made me nostalgic—I wrote on manual typewriters at my first two newspapers. Although I embraced the ease of computers when they came, I miss the crisp keystroke of a good manual.

Harlan Ellison, prolific science fiction writer and typewriter holdout, spoke for other typewriter users, and perhaps for hand-writers, when he said on his web page, “Making it easier, I think, is invidious. It is a really BAD thing. Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.”

Paul Auster is famous for relying on a typewriter. But in his interview with the Paris Review, he made clear his initial process is even more hands-on: “I’ve always written by hand. Mostly with a fountain pen, but sometimes with a pencil—especially for corrections. If I could write directly on a typewriter or a computer, I would do it. But keyboards have always intimidated me. I’ve never been able to think clearly with my fingers in that position. A pen is a much more primitive instrument. You feel that the words are coming out of your body, and then you dig the words into the page. Writing has always had a tactile quality for me. It’s a physical experience.”

Annie Dillard, in an interview with NPR, indicated that the decade-long composition of her novel The Maytrees was traumatic—near the end, she cut about 1,000 pages to arrive at a book of a little more than 200—and blamed the computer’s ease, in part: “A story should be simplified and enlarged. Instead the computer dilutes it, spreads it all over the place. It muffles any impact it might have had as the poor reader makes his way through billions of unnecessary paragraphs about billions of unnecessary things.”

Meanwhile a friend of mine, the author of several books, loves his computer—the one he uses for writing isn’t connected to the Internet, to keep him focused—because his process involves thinking, playing around, and exploring at the keyboard. Amidst one of my recent typewriter fantasies (my handwriting is ugly, so when I think of doing something more tactile it’s often a return to typing first drafts), I asked another writer if he missed typewriters. Heavens no, he said. “Computer writing is much more spontaneous and creative, for me anyway.”

Yet, a few years ago at a conference, I heard a panel of first-time novelists describe their method. A commonality seemed to be initial, partial composition by hand—and writing “islands,” the good stuff, ignoring narrative bridges. I got the sense that many moved to the keyboard after the book’s tone was set in fifty or 100 pages.

There’s no formula, but each writer’s task is to find what works in his case. Art is intensely personal. And so must the artist be.

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10 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, fiction, working method

10 responses to “Prose: hot, fresh & handmade

  1. Not wanting to lug around a computer when I was doing a lot of travel writing, I often found myself doing a rough draft of my story on the plane as I headed home. I discovered two things: That I composed sentences more carefully when writing longhand, taking more time to make word choices rather than pounding forward on the keyboard. I also started noticing that the stories I wrote on the way back had an immediacy, a lyricism and, yes, grace that seemed lacking when I was forced to wait days or weeks to write them. It could very well be that writing them out by hand somehow added to this. I still find it hard to write letters to my aunt and others I communicate with by letters on a computer. They just seem cold.
    Thanks, Richard.

  2. What a great article, Richard. Thank you. I especially like the final paragraph. Whatever works.

  3. theexile

    I’ve rarely felt comfortable writing in longhand, but did love using a manual typewriter, a gift from my aunt — I typed the first draft of my master’s thesis on it (in 1996), and only the final draft on a word processor. After I got my word processor, I still typed early drafts on my typewriter. Some of the sketches I wrote on the typewriter are some of the best I’ve written. They flow better than other things I’ve written.

    Maybe it has something to do with the noticeable rhythm of the typewriter, especially with my two-finger hunt-and-peck style.

    I think the other thing is having a hard copy to mark up, whether the copy’s longhand, typewritten or printed. The worst thing about printers, though, is the cost of ink, especially when you tend to print and edit and revise each time you work on a draft.

  4. John Silvestro

    -It’s like the end of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” when the narrator and the blind man ‘draw’ the cathedral with a ball-point pen on the back of a brown shopping bag. Both the narrator and the blind man connect with the image created by the ink and the heavy paper.
    -There’s just something about writing a story on notebook paper. The words, the images, the dialogue, and the characters, there yours and the page’s, but when you type your stories the connection is lost. They’re just text, black dashes on a computer screen. To really KNOW your story, you first have to write it and connect with it.
    -“So we (the narrator and the blind man) kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” (Carver)

  5. Thanks, John. And for reminding me of that story . . .

  6. Thanks for this interesting post… How writers write is a topic I’m fascinated by. I love the idea of writing “islands” – this is a method that works for me but I’ve never put a name to it.

  7. C. D. Smith

    Excellent post. I enjoyed it very much.