Why do I use pen and paper to take down my first draft? The reason could be ideological—a preference for analogue over digital, a desire to maximise physical engagement before editing and analysing. Yet for me, there is also something deeply pleasurable and vaguely thrilling about the process of handwriting. The adventure of opening a notebook to reach the next blank page is like seeing that little side track that may let you meet a lyrebird passing within metres of your feet, where a wallaby may stare at you as though assessing your worth, or where there might be nothing spectacular but the very lack of significance makes it special. You are able to observe the ordinariness in a way that renders it transcendent. For me, the blank page suggests this kind of opportunity in a way the blank screen can never rival.
Yes, I may swiftly turn to my laptop if I want to capture something that has especially pleased me, particularly if my enthusiasm for what I have written has reduced my writing to scrawl, barely legible to its own writer. Yet 90% of the time, my first draft of almost any writing project will be handwritten.
Handwriting also allows me to indulge a passion for fountain pens—a zeal that was conceived with my first Osmiroid in 3rd grade. When I was at school in the late 1960s, your first ink pen was always a fountain pen. In those days, every local newsagent held a small range of pens and ink to satisfy children celebrating the transition from erasable pencil to the durability of ink. I loved my first pen. My beloved burgundy Osmiroid had a side-lever that pressed the ink bladder within to fill it. It often left rather unsatisfying blots and splurges of ink, as well as achieving the rounded script I had practiced in my years of pencilled writing.
I still find it deeply pleasurable to fill my pen with ink from a bottle of bright colour. I also delight in the scratch of the nib with its audible and tangible sensation of movement. There is something too about the notion of saving the world from a few of the ball-point pens that seem either to proliferate or disappear to their own alternate universe. My fountain pen could be classed as affectation, but I definitely avoid ostentation, preferring the most basic of instruments to go with my fondness for cheap and cheerful blank exercise books.
Handwriting keeps me true to one of the commands Wendell Berry issues in his instructive poem, How to be a poet. ‘Stay away from screens,’ he admonishes. ‘Stay away from anything/that obscures the place it is in.’ Writing by hand with my cheap Pilot fountain pen with its extra fine nib, in the Warwick exercise books I buy by the stack when I visit New Zealand, allows me to pause—because my shoulder aches, because a magpie carols, because the sun sends prismatic patterns of colour across the ceiling from the crystal hanging in my window. I am not tempted to check something completely relevant—or utterly tangential—in an internet search which can lead to a long and procrastinatory trip down a rabbit hole of distraction. Nor do I become too critical before the piece has ripened a little.
When I do have the urge to tinker and edit, then the screen is perfect. It welcomes me without judgment. My scrawl is translated to the regularity of Book Antiqua, Times, or Candara. The software provides its helpful thesaurus and its less helpful grammatical advice. I can delete, shift, cut and paste until the piece feels shaped and ready, both taut and generous enough to be let out. It is freed from my imagination, from my notebook, from my laptop to wherever it may happen to arrive.
One thing I realise constantly in this age of deep individualisation is that we all have our own ways to do things, processes that are helpful or unhelpful for us in very specific ways. Allowing ourselves to discover and discern the delights that serve us, as well as identifying the habits we need to change or alter, seems to be one of the tasks of this time. We can explore our particular methods in the way we write, prepare meals, respond to an email, or dig a garden bed. I believe that our helpful habits, even the most eccentric or idiosyncratic, can let us discover and develop what is unique in us, so that we can make our very particular contribution to the human project.