Susan Sontag

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The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard


In his new collection of short essays, The Book of Delights, the poet Ross Gay offers one piece (“Writing by Hand”) that delineates the demarcation between those who write by hand and those who write by keyboard. Does it matter? Do the acts use different parts of the brain? Does one genre (poetry) lend itself more to handwriting than another (essay or novel writing)?

Gay starts with an anecdote about Derek Walcott teaching a graduate poetry workshop. On the first day of class, Walcott asked how many write by hand and how many write by computer. About half of the wannabe poets raised their hands for computer. According to Gay, Walcott’s reaction was deadpan but alarming:

“[Walcott] said, with almost no affect (which is itself an affect), ‘You six can leave my workshop.’ And just like you would’ve, they gathered their things and started down the hall, probably wondering if Pinsky had any seats open in his class. Before they got too far though he called them back…’C’mon, c’mon. I’m just making a point.’ What was the point?”

This interesting hook is followed by an allusion to another famous writer: “Susan Sontag said somewhere something like any technology that slows us down in our writing rather than speeding us up is the one we ought to use.”

Gay admits that he would pass muster with Walcott and Sontag alike: “I would not have been tossed from Walcott’s workshop, because I write poems pretty slowly, line by line, with a pen, a Le Pen these days (a delight, the Le Pen is). Prose, though, I often write by computer, piling sentences up quickly, cutting and pasting, deleting whole paragraphs without thinking anything of it. For these essays, though, I decided that I’d write by hand, mostly with Le Pens, in smallish notebooks. I can tell you a few things—first, the pen, the hand behind the pen, is a digressive beast. It craves, in my experience anyway, the wending thought, and crafts/imagines/conjures a syntax to contain it. On the other hand, the process of thinking that writing is, made disappearable by the delete button, makes a whole part of the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear (the scratch-out its own archive), which is the weird path toward what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is.”

Me, I like best his remark about scratch-outs being their own archive, but I also think the tools of your writing are a personal thing too slippery for any set rules. Despite being semi-Luddite, despite owning no cellphone, despite distrusting any room with a Siri or Alexa in it, I write everything by keyboard now.

Yes, I scratch ideas in various-sized Moleskine notebooks (I’m addicted to those pads like you’re addicted to your phone), but for the actual act of building poetry into a final product over time and, when I’m at it (like now), writing prose, I’m a hopeless keyboard guy—one who would be packing his notebook on the first day of Derek Walcott’s class, that is. Looking for Pinsky’s seminar. (And where is this dream school where every hallway door hides not only a poet but a laureate? Beam me up, Scottie!)

I’d venture that I’m not alone, too. Probably way more writers are attuned to the clickety-clicks of the keyboard than the scratch of the pen or #2 pencil. Still, I suggest you stay in touch with your handwriting self somehow. The brain scientists are insistent, after all. It taps a different chamber of the House of Noggin and, as any poet can tell you, we need every chamber we can get.