On Desert Island Discs the other day, Peter Ackroyd chose a pen and some paper as his luxury. ‘Do you write longhand?’ asked Kirsty Young. Ackroyd’s reply was really intriguing: yes, he does write longhand – but only his fiction. To write one genre by hand but another on computer might seem bizarre, including to Ackroyd himself, who responds to my enquiry about why he works this way with an admission that he doesn’t know. He is, though, far from unique in having a strange approach to his craft. Many writers have been very … how can we put this … ‘particular’ in the way they turn words in their head into words on the page.
In centuries past, of course, the ‘pen versus typewriter versus computer’ question didn’t arise. Even then, however, there was room for quirkiness. When Jane Austen started writing she used very small pieces of paper, so she could hide them under a blotter in case anyone entered the room. (Nice to know even the greats suffer from self-doubt.) Going further back, Elizabeth I always insisted on writing with a swan’s quill, despite the fact that goose quills were easier to use. The swan quill lasted a lot longer, apparently. And I suppose it felt more regal for her.
Technology made its first entry in the 19th century, when Mark Twain became the first writer to complete a novel using a typewriter. In his autobiography he claimed it was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), though others have claimed he really meant Life on the Mississippi (1883). Either way, it wasn’t Twain’s own fingers that were applied to the newfangled keys – he ‘hired a young woman’ to take dictation. He himself grew to dislike the machine, as it only produced capitals, and Gothic ones at that. ‘After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character,’ he wrote (in longhand). This might seem a bit harsh, but nevertheless Twain wasn’t happy until he’d given the typewriter away.
Even when more user-friendly models appeared, many writers preferred the old-fashioned way of working. Kingsley Amis wrote Lucky Jim by hand, and what’s more kept not only the manuscript of the preliminary notes but also the pens and pencils with which they were created. John Steinbeck used 300 pencils on East of Eden. At the beginning of each day he sharpened them, then limbered up with a letter to his friend Pascal Covici. This was written on the lefthand page of a notebook. After that he wrote that day’s section of the novel on the righthand page. Vladimir Nabokov, meanwhile, used 5×8 inch index cards to plan the scenes in his novels. Once everything was in the right order he’d write the book out in full.
Right up to the modern day, as Peter Ackroyd shows, the pen can still be mightier than the keyboard. Michael Ondaatje writes longhand, and then cuts and pastes – literally, with scissors and tape. George Lucas might be an innovator when it comes to his films (2002’s Star Wars Episode II – The Attack of the Clones was the first major film shot on digital cameras), but he still does all his writing by hand. Frank Skinner follows Ackroyd in the ‘horses for courses’ approach: his autobiography was written on computer, as are his sketches, sit-coms and everything else – except for his stand-up routines, which he records longhand. ‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘it’s simply that I was writing stand-up before I owned or knew how to operate a computer, and old habits die hard.’
For those who want it, the halfway house between nib and screen is still there – the manual typewriter. Is one of the attractions that you can actually see the pile of pages building as you go, measuring your progress from idea to completed book? Much more satisfying than a few pixels in the corner of a screen saying ‘page 45 of 45’. If so Don DeLillo must have got a real kick from his efforts on The Names – he typed each new paragraph, however short, on a new sheet of paper. ‘This enabled me,’ he says, ‘to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I’d written.’ You hear that sound? It’s the steam coming from George Monbiot’s ears.
Will Self is another maestro of the manual. Once his first draft of a book is 80 per cent typed, he starts on the second, then the third, ‘so that there’s a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book.’ Self is of the generation that started working on typewriters, but even so, don’t you think his refusal to switch to a computer fits with his SCC image (Self-Conscious Curmudgeon)?
In the magazine last year I penned (or rather didn’t) a piece about my own inability to write by hand, quoting (on the opposite side of the divide) D.J. Taylor, whose first drafts are always done in longhand. Let the final word on quirkiness, though, go to Umberto Eco. As if his workplace – a converted church – wasn’t singular enough, he works on three separate floors. On one he writes in longhand, on another using a typewriter, and on the third by computer. Nothing like keeping your options open.