For those who despair of finding something worth reading in newspapers and journals carnned with the jargon-laden and often barely comprehensible effusions of overpaid, narcissistic ‘insider’ political pundits, inane celebrity-watching, advertising disguised as ‘lifestyle’ advice and the endless torrent of hyperbole for those who imagine sport is important, here is something that will more than fill the gap.
Longform is a website which carries links to an eclectic mix of long articles on a myriad subjects, some up-to-the-minute, some from as long ago as 1926 (a fascinating insight from The Atlantic into the grubby practices of newspaper reporting in that era — how little has changed).
And instead of being selected by an algorithm, the articles are curated by human beings who have an obvious passion for good writing.
Articles can be saved for later reading via services such as Instapaper. But beware — it’s addictive.
Reports that the last typewriter factory has closed its doors are slightly premature, but it won’t be long before that happens; the wonder is that it managed to survive as long as it did.
The advent of this then revolutionary device in the middle of the 19th century was greeted with much the same suspicion and occasional outright enmity as the desktop computer in the early 1980s — a mixture of the defence of vested interests and blinkered conservatism. In a couple of decades, it put out of business an entire and now forgotten class of professionals — the scriveners, copyists and engrossers who were the princes of the clerkly classes.
Anyone, almost always male, who could write a fine, elegant hand could earn a moderately good living in legal or commercial firms and a practitioner would serve a fairly lengthy apprenticeship from copying to engrossing, the pinnacle of the scrivener’s art, which was the final fair copying of elaborate documents, including wills, contracts, indentures, treaties and other instruments of power.
The documents themselves were often things of beauty, frequently adorned with flourishes and graphic furbelows, and each copy had to be as far as possible identical.
At the other end of the market, freelance scrivening and copying provided a slender means of survival for lonely eccentrics, wasters and ne’er-do-wells such as Melville’s Bartleby and other unemployables, while their more respectable colleagues could often find a post as amanuensis to a prominent author, a gentleman scholar or a busy public figure.
But still, it was drudgery. George Bernard Shaw opined that ‘Of all the damnable waste of human life, clerking is the worst.’
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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.
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If I had to give young writers advice I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.
— Lillian Hellman
‘I do want you to meet Mrs Leighton-Buzzard,’ said Mrs Bovey-Tracey, asking me to dinner the other day. ‘She’s such an interesting woman, and most unusual. She doesn’t write, you know.’
— William Plomer, Electric Delights
All human activity to me is a way of avoiding writing. Thus, I sleep as much as possible or spend a hard day lying on the sofa.
— Fran Lebowitz
Writing cannot be done in a loud café or in a house chaotic with children and the plaints of a neglected spouse. Too frequently it is done in stolen moments under the pressure of avoided duty or furtively at an office desk while a supervisor is distracted.
The legends of Grub Street, a lane in Augustan London now vanished beneath the Barbican and the last resort for writers down on their luck or insufficiently talented or well-connected to do any better, are replete with tales of starving hacks, hung over from too much cheap port, scribbling frantically in a squalid garret for a grudging publisher’s guinea, surrounded by hungry brats, a wife at the end of her tether and creditors pounding on the door.
Writers need time, space and—ideally—some degree of freedom from the necessity of a disagreeable job to support themselves, as well as the willpower (or the obstinacy) to induce others to take writing seriously. The trouble with writing is that it doesn’t look like work and family and friends have no compunction in interrupting it.
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