On Writing: Medium and Style

An Essay By Hannah D. // 3/17/2017

I rarely - if ever - construct a poem at a computer. For whatever reason, when I decide I want to sit down and write a poem, I always look around for a pencil and my notebook. Even if I've been sitting at my computer for a while, as soon as I want to work on a poem, I almost instinctively leave it for a piece of paper.

I wonder why that is. I compose essays all the time on a word processor. Sure, I'll pen them by hand too, but there is a slight preference for a keyboard; my hand may start to cramp after the paragraphs have piled on. And when it comes to poems, after I've written one, I'll type it up, edit it, read it over, revise it - I can do all that on a computer.

But the very first stages of a poem apparently must be done via a more organic means. The first words, and more often than not the first stages of editing, of crossing out and rewording and scribbling over, are done with pencil in hand.

Why is that? And why am I just now realizing it?

Maybe I should try to break the pattern. Should I begin a poem in Microsoft Word and see what happens? What about thumbing out a few lines in my iPhone's "Notes" app?

Or perhaps should I stick to my instincts. Is there any reason to obey to that impulse that drives me towards one of my familiar little notebooks when poetry is in sight?

When I was very young we would go and visit my Great-Grandma Olive. She had been a secretary, and had a real-life typewriter in her room. My brother and I loved to play with it, experimenting with words and all the little tings and clicks it made. I have sometimes thought that I would love to get one of those again. I could certainly write essays on it. Maybe stories. But what about poems? Would that be a natural pursuit?

It is said that Hemingway wrote better than Grisham because he didn't have a computer, Twain wrote better than Hemingway because he didn't have a typewriter, and Homer wrote better than Twain because he didn't have paper. While labels such as 'better' are subjective, it has also been said that philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who as he became blind began to depend more and more on his typewriter, actually showed noticeable changes in his writing style and word usage.*

Other writers have been more authoritative in choosing a writing medium, as if aware of the affects medium brings. I once heard that the first drafts of Madeleine L'Engle's books were completely handwritten, and that C. S. Lewis insisted in writing all of his works out with an old-fashioned fountain pen!

The implication of such accounts is that the medium a writer uses can influence how he thinks, verbalizes, and puts words on a page. Is such a thing true? Is it possible that the usage of technology can affect something as natural as a writer's own unique style? As a writer's voice?

If so, what if that goes further than typewriter versus word processor versus notebook? What if writing in a pencil or pen or crayon can subtly change how we write? Does it matter if we chose different fonts, or write in cursive, or in calligraphy? What if we picked up one of the 20th century Shorthand techniques and tried writing in that manner?** Remember the monks of the Dark Ages, who could spend a lifetime designing one of those beautiful illuminated manuscripts? Perhaps some personal experiments are in order!

If the means of how I write can actually be influenced by keyboard or college-ruled notebook, by typewriter or fountain pen, then I want to know how they affect my writing, so that I can write better. Mabe I can choose my medium based on the theme I want to convey in my works. After all, perhaps the medium a writer chooses is comparable (in some small way) to choosing to dance to Bach or Native American rhythms. Or as trained in ballet or hula. Like painting with oil paints or watercolors, or sculpting with clay or from stone. Each musical instrument has its own personality, independent of the musician's personal voice. Perhaps a similar thing can be said for each writing instrument - used differently in the hands of each writer, but with a flair of its own to add depth.

And maybe, by some curious instinct, I've always known that my poems require the effect of lined papers and mechanical pencils and quaint little notebooks.

PostScript
*I could have sworn that I read this in the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. However, as I really have no immediate way to confirm this, I found another source to back me up here at the following post: https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/07/26/nietzsches-transforma...

**Yes, I actually did this. I have no recollection of what made me originally pick up an interest in shorthand. First I tried Teeline by finding some resources online, then found a book on Gregg Shorthand at my library. After I discovered that both my Grandma and her mother (the very same Great-Grandma Olive) were not only well trained but also apparently experts in Shorthand (and Gregg Shorthand, at that), I decided it was well worth the effort. I have not, as of yet, experimented by constructing poems (or essays, for that matter) in shorthand.

There's an interesting article (pg 10, "Low-Tech Teaching with High-End Results") by Andrew Pudewa in his 2017 "magalog" for the Institute for Excellence in Writing on technology and how that affects us as writers (and students!) You can find it here: http://www.iew.com/help-support/magalog