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The enduring appeal of putting pen to paper

At 90, an author reflects on the joys and advantages of writing longhand.

Choosing the one right word takes intense thought, writes the author. And intense thought is exactly what the computer does not encourage.
Choosing the one right word takes intense thought, writes the author. And intense thought is exactly what the computer does not encourage.Adobe

When I started writing stories more than 60 years ago, I did every first draft longhand in spiral notebooks. I wrote five novels this way. I have been in love with this kind of writing since the second grade, when Miss McCleary handed out sheets of lined paper and wrote her own letters on a blackboard. Some of the letters had tails: y, p, g. Some required you to lift your hand to complete: f and k. These were just the small letters and only half the job. The others were capitals, and some of these were nothing like their lowercase versions: A, E, G. The teacher made a special point of telling me that I might find writing difficult because not only was I left-handed, I also had a lazy eye.

She had no clue about how anxious I was. As a child I struggled with every new task: tying my shoes, telling time (no digital anything back then), and reading, which I finally did when I was 8.

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But writing the alphabet — squeezing that Number 2 pencil between my thumb and first two fingers — made me feel that I could perform miracles. I felt a force that began inside my head rush down my left arm and into my fingers and spill out onto a piece of paper. These were words. Even now, as I write this with my Pilot Precise V5 pen, I’m amazed by how I can think of a word and then, with my very own hands, create something that someone else can understand.

When you write in longhand, you can edit as you go. There is catharsis in crossing out and then just getting back to the thought in question. Not so on the typewriter, which involves rather painstakingly brush-stroking the offensive word with a white syrup that smells strongly of rubbing alcohol. It’s a flow killer.

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For ease and quiet, the computer has the typewriter beat, but I would argue that composing on the computer is so physically undemanding that it encourages you to write much too quickly and to minimize reflection. You can revise so instantaneously that you risk losing grasp of your original, possibly better thought. Sometimes you write so fast that you don’t have time to think. And thinking about what you’re going to say is half the battle. Choosing the one right word takes intense thought, and intense thought is exactly what the computer does not encourage.

The computer also can’t help if spontaneity is what you’re after. Consider lists.

Most of us write down what we need before going to the market. It’s a prudent thing to do — saves you money, keeps your eye on the fiscal ball. (Lists don’t guarantee self-control, however. No matter how few items appear on mine, I always come home with three full grocery bags. A box of caramel popcorn? Not on my list, but what the heck — I deserve it.)

Computers also can’t produce sticky notes that channel of-the-minute feeling. Personal messages, reminders, apologies, requests, threats — they all have a good deal of muzzle velocity. For example:

“I’m tired of this dump. You might see me in June. Don’t try to find me.”

“Peter, don’t forget to call your grandmother on her birthday. She’ll be 82 years young.”

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“Emma, please empty the wastebasket in your bedroom. It’s getting very ripe in there.”

“Whoever ‘borrowed’ my wedge of Gruyère, please replace it. No questions asked.”

Nor can computers write in books you’re reading. I cannot read a book without a pen or pencil in hand for notes along the block of print — pretentiously known as “marginalia.”

Every book my late husband, a biographer, read was seeded with margin notes. He wrote “theme” alongside a paragraph in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” that read in part: “. . . in metropolises it was ‘not the thing’ to arrive early at the opera.” I’m not sure I agree with him, but that’s beside the point; it’s his thought that counts. He once found this comment dashed off in a book borrowed from Harvard’s Widener Library: “What do you know about Japanese culture, you a*****e nerd!” Priceless. Oh yes, we were admonished as children never, ever to scribble in books.

You could print out a note for your mailman — excuse me, letter carrier. But a handwritten note will do. “Greetings Fred. We’re going on vacation for two weeks. Please leave our mail at No. 58. I haven’t told them yet but I’m sure it will be okay.”

And what about the message you absolutely must leave on a car’s windshield? If you go home to slam it out on your computer’s keyboard, you might lose your pique and skip the whole thing. Better to reach for the back of the envelope and the pen in your glove box and scrawl, “Hey jerk! The next time you grab my parking space after I dug it out, you’ll have to buy a whole new set of tires.”

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I’m far from a Luddite. I spend too much time on the computer, lured by sites like YouTube and AcornTV, and when I’m searching for how to make perfect potato pancakes, and by sexy photographs of Laurence Olivier as a young man. But my MacBook Air can’t make up stories or straighten out a mangled sentence the way my left hand can.

Anne Bernays is the author of 10 novels and the coauthor of three nonfiction books.