My reason: 19th century technology. I used to think writing was hard enough even with a computer to ease the editing process. Decide to call your heroine Natasha instead of Natalie? Easy: just click “search and replace”. Realise you don’t know how to spell “desperate”, a word that has peppered your novel? No sweat - the spellchecker will correct it. Been told that by your editor that your story would work better in first person present than third person past? A few hours at your PC will put that right.
How hard it must have been, I used to think, for the likes of Tolstoy, Hardy, Eliot, Dickens, et al. They had no choice but to toil in a very, er, Dickensian way with dip-pen and blotter. Each manuscript had to be written by hand, possibly many times, before it was ready to turned by manually assembled printing plates into a 600 page print books. Hot metal—the polar opposite of the “print on demand” beloved of the 21st century self-published author.
A rewrite would have to be just that: literally a rewrite, the author bent over piles of paper, scratching away with pen and ink for endless hours. Every few minutes, the pen would need re-inking. No dashing off dozens of words a minute, as I can on my computer keyboard. Plus of course the author would have to sharpen said dip-pen every so often. It’s called a pen-knife for a reason, folks.
Tolstoy, I gather, was a particular stickler for drafting and redrafting his work. It’s a long enough job just to read War and Peace, never mind write it out over and over again.
So I used to feel sorry for such authors, sighing over how much more productive they might have been if only they had access to our modern technology.
And yet… theirs are some of the longest novels I’ve ever read—and some of the best. What’s more, most Victorian authors wrote a LOT of books, by anybody’s standards. Many modern novelists would willingly exchange their tricksy IT for such productivity.
I still find it surprising that, with such physical limitations, the 19th century was not a golden age for short fiction, flash, even haiku. But no, the Victorians went in for volume.
But now I realise that old-fashioned pen and ink must have brought their own advantages. If you have to laboriously write every draft by hand, aren’t you going to be more careful that you get the first one right? If creating a novel requires hundreds of hours of physical labour, aren’t you going to work harder to plan the plot before you put pen to paper? Isn’t dipping your pen between words, and carefully blotting the words dry as you go, going to buy you more thinking time before you set down every word on the page?
Think of the distractions that these Victorian authors were spared from. No temptation to socialise at the click of a button; no Twitter hovering behind your manuscript to divert you gossip; no addictive Freecell poised to ambush you in a moment of weakness. Not even any writers’ blogs to entice you on the pretext of offering inspiration. (No, cancel that remark—I’d like you to read this blog at least.)
In those days, the author was alone with his page. He had plenty of time to choose his words, and to let them flow in a soothing rhythm from brain to inkpot to pen to page.
As he carefully formed the letters, their pace dictated by his pen, the physical shape, sound and taste of each word would etch deeper into his consciousness. He’d choose his words as carefully as a jigsaw piece. Modern technology makes it too easy just to cram mismatched pieces together, IT the sledgehammer that will somehow force them to fit. Constantly at the back of your mind lurks the perfect excuse for sloppy phraseology: “Well, I can easily edit it later”.
No. Better get it right first time—at least as close to right as you can, by slowing down and taking the old-fashioned route now and again.
At least, that’s how I justify my obsessive purchase of old-fashioned paper notebooks, every time I get near a stationery shop. Spiral bound, A4 hardbacks, preferably with a thought-provoking picture on the front, a free-flowing ballpoint pen clipped onto their cover, awaiting my instructions. Ever the optimist, I trust these talismans to work some old-fashioned magic on my writing. And if this approach doesn’t bear fruit soon, I’m going to invest in a dip-pen, in hope of channelling Tolstoy.
Are you a dip-pen poet or a keyboard creative? I’d love to know whether or not I’m alone in my whims.
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