How Writers Write

THERE IS an enormous store of narrative concerning the working habits of authors, much of it interesting and in my case consumed with amusement but skepticism also.

William Faulkner, who was employed at the night shift of an electric generating power plant, claimed to have written As I Lay Dying on the bottom of an overturned wheel barrow. The late Stieg Larsson is said to have written his Millennium trilogy at night. Additional anecdotes inform us that Schiller soaked his feet, that poet John Dryden submitted himself to vigour-inducing bleedings, and that the migraine suffering Alexander Pope kept coffee at his side, the steam from which he inhaled as a placebo. Thomas De Quincy and Samuel Coleridge, the latter of whom re-drafted his enormous work on the French Revolution after the manuscript was burned by his housekeeper, were for a time aided in their work by opium.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, all writing was done on some form of plant-derived paper with a stylus (a feather, or by the middle of the 1800s a steel nib) dipped in a vegetable-based ink. In the 1870s fountain pens and typewriters were introduced. As a result, the satirist Samuel Langhorne Clemens was able to adopt a literal pen name. Mark Twain’s pen of choice was a Conklin blackened hard rubber (or bhr) crescent filler fountain pen, which pleased him because its design had the unintended result of rendering it incapable of rolling off a table. Twain — who like Marcel Proust and Truman Capote wrote in bed, whereas Dickens stood — was also an early adopter of the typewriter. An anecdote has him submitting the first typed manuscript of an American novel, which he or more likely an assistant produced on a Sholes & Glidden.

On the topic of tools, we discover other writers known to have, or rumoured to have, composed their drafts with a fountain pen. Kipling much preferred ink over the typewriter. I have seen Simone de Beauvoir photographed with a 1940s Sheaffer Snorkel Triumph, of which I have several. Another favourite pen of mine is the 1940s Parker 51, which I have read was used by Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Philip Roth, and if my memory serves me well Neil Gaiman also. Hemingway for a time lived near the factory where Montegrappas were produced, a detail sometimes brought forth to substantiate the claim that he wrote with one. However, he is more commonly said to have written with a pencil, as did Kerouac and Steinbeck and Nabokov, and to have composed on a Royal Quiet de Luxe typewriter. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for a time used a Parker Duofold, a version of the pen used by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and with which in 1945 General Douglas MacArthur signed the documents confirming the Japanese surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. Stephen King applied himself to a regime of 2,500-words-a-day, which for a time he produced with a Waterman. I am unable to confirm that Agatha Christie used a Conway Stewart, a brand used by poet Seamus Heaney, who has written a poem of the same name. (I have a marbled blue 388 in my collection.)

Richard Wright at his desk, c. 1957, his typewriter at his side and a Parker “51″ in hand.

Early in the 20th century the lead pencil was more economical and thus more commonly encountered than the fountain pen. During the Second World War non-military uses of gold were restricted in Japan while steel was rationed in the U.S., with the curious result that gold nibs were rarely found in Japanese pens of this period whereas they were common among American models. A notable exception in the States was the economy line of Esterbrooks, which featured an interchangeable stainless nib known as the “Renew Point.” It is a decent and reliable pen, and I’ve several of my own. I’ve come across claims that Hemingway used one of these, but I doubt that this was so and in any case I have no evidence that it was. The ballpoint did not arrive until around the late 1930s. Early ballpoints were unreliable and sold poorly, but by the 1960s were replacing the fountain pen in growing numbers.

The chief tool of the trade from the 1870s onward was of course the typewriter. Here the record is abundant in verifiable details. George Orwell used a Remington Home Portable Number 2 for much of his work, as did Agatha Christie. Other Remington users include William S. Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Hermann Hesse, and H. L. Mencken. In the Royal camp we find John Ashbery (Royal Aristocrat and KMM), Saul Bellow (KMG), Bob Dylan ( Safari Deluxe) and Charles Bukowski (HH). Then there were the Smith-Corona camp (e.e. cummings, Sinclair Lewis, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, and yours truly) and the Hermes camp (John Steinbeck, Eugune Ionesco, and William Gibson) and so on. A list of this sort, which could go on at great length, will probably mean little to a generation which has grown up with the personal computer. Furthermore, while the typewriter was the dominant tool it appears to have suffered the greatest decline, probably because one may type just as well on a laptop as on a typewriter. Only the physical, tactile act of writing on paper with pen has eluded perfect replication in the computer age, so that many writers who use computers also compose their initial draft with pen or pencil. My own preference, particularly with longer works, is to write at least one version in my own hand, using a fountain pen, before transcribing to some sort of computer (about that, I couldn’t care less).

Not every writer has the luxury of choosing his or her tools. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn composed entire works in the Gulag, committing thousands of lines to memory with the aid of a hidden rosary-like tool when paper scrap could not be had. Anti-Apartheid novelist Breyten Breytenbach wrote the brilliant Mouroir in the solitary confinement of a Pretoria prison under the scrutiny of guards and with the expectation he would never again see the outside world. Miguel de Cervantes, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oscar Wilde, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Antonio Gramsci, Wole Soyinka, Paulo Freire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o are other writers who composed important works either partially or entirely while imprisoned. Indeed, prison literature constitutes a plentiful genre of its own, a fact which reminds us of the precarious state of the writer throughout history as well as in our own time.

2 responses to “How Writers Write

  1. That is great! Thanks for sharing such amazing info.

    Like this

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