Since we stopped using quills, fountain pens and manual typewriters, the act of writing has become more abstract—symbols on a screen whose existence is mainly virtual.
It’s a blessing. Henry James handwrote himself into carpal tunnel syndrome and had to resort to an amanuensis. George Orwell complained of the exhausting physical work of writing: drafting, editing, re-typing, rearranging, the frustration of having to abandon large lumps of painfully constructed text when a work takes a wrong direction and, finally, the huge task of producing a clean final copy of a manuscript.
Some lucky individuals loved the process of writing: Arnold Bennett took pride in the beauty of his finished handwritten manuscripts: obviously he was robust enough to resist writer’s cramp and he achieved a prodigious output.
But separation from the physical act of writing can have its disadvantages. However much the computer has eased the writer’s task, it’s not much help when the flow of creativity comes to a stop, as it inevitably will for all but the most compulsively prolific. Often, too, wandering about the web in search of inspiration can be little more than a mildly guilty displacement activity.
One way out of this is to learn or to regain the pleasures of the act of writing. Ballpoint pens and cheap scratchpads won’t do: buy yourself a fountain pen (yes, they’re still being made) and make it the best you can afford. Then look for an old-fashioned notebook, one with smooth creamy paper and faint grey lines, preferably leather-bound with a ribbon to keep your place. They come in various sizes and you might want a small one for pocket or purse and a bigger one for your desk.
You might choose to distract yourself with a little calligraphy but the quality of your penmanship isn’t important. A good pen and good paper do a lot to improve anyone’s writing. Use only black ink and enjoy the sensuality of a nib gliding over the paper.
What you write doesn’t matter much, either—but you’ll find that after you’ve tired of flourishes and favourite phrases, the words will start to flow on their own.
Then take it further. Start drawing, even if you can’t draw. For this, visit an art store and get a big blank cartridge paper notebook. If you favour pencil, buy at the top of the range; otherwise, the store will have a big range of fibre-tip pens in various widths and colours.
Drawing helps writing in all sorts of subtle ways. You can picture scenes, characters and places and annotate the images with the ideas that come to you as you draw. It can help you to recover that elusive idea you can’t quite remember or to stop it being lost in the first place. The quality of the drawings themselves doesn’t matter much; nobody but you needs to see them.
Before typewriters and cameras, almost every literate person learned a little drawing. Letters to home or to friends often contained little sketches, either in the text or as enclosures, to amplify and explain things seen and done.
Many notable writers—John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just two—used drawing as an aid to their writing and became skillful artists in their own right. You don’t have to become hung up on the quality of your drawings, but if you do want to express ideas in a more finished fashion there are plenty of good manuals to help you: perhaps the best is still Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
With both drawing and penmanship, make sure you have fun—by taking them less seriously you can have some really serious fun when you’re doing ‘real’ writing.