I am two-thirds of the way through The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher. I have mixed feelings about the book but I will go into those after I am done in a day or two. I only mention it because it has me thinking about handwriting lately and taking note of mentions of handwriting around the internet.
Like a recent article at Brain Pickings Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and Writing by Hand as a Creative Catalyst (via). The article is about a Gordon essay that appeared in a 2001 book called Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times. The article quotes Gordon:
Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.
In another quote she describes her pen and the color of ink she likes to use. I do love writing by hand which is a very physical act, slow and deliberate. I’m not sure I could compose a whole novel by hand though. One of the things I like best about composing on a computer is the ability to erase or edit what I don’t like without wasting paper. Sometimes, especially when I am writing something new, when faced with a pen and a blank piece of paper I find myself suddenly at a loss of how to start. But a screen, it forgives all false starts. I do find, however, that if I am in the middle of writing something and I get stuck, switching to pen and paper can get me going again. I suppose the lesson is to have a variety of tools in the toolbox!
I read a New York Review blog post by Colm Toibin yesterday on Proust and an exhibition at the Morgan Library of his notebooks and manuscripts. There is a photo of a page from a 1910 notebook that contains an early version of Swann’s Way. As Toibin describes it, “Proust’s handwriting is bad.” I don’t read French so I can’t begin to puzzle out what it says, but I can’t even tell what most of the letters are.
Coincidentally, this afternoon, I read a chapter in The Missing Ink on Proust! Hensher writes about various references and scenes in Proust’s novel that center around handwriting, but he also writes about Proust himself. Proust, apparently, took great pleasure in the handwriting of others. When he received a letter he liked to try and guess who it was from just by the handwriting on the envelope. Graphology was also the rage at the time and he was fascinated by the idea that character could be revealed by one’s handwriting. Today graphology is akin to reading someone’s personality by the bumps on their skull, but in Proust’s day, they had no such reservations.
According to Hensher, Proust often took pleasure in the illegible handwriting of his many correspondents. In a letter to Emmanuel Berl Proust wrote:
the mysterious arabesques which you ironically call handwriting …[the] signs which, though devoid of rational meaning, nevertheless conjure up your face.
To Anna de Noailles he wrote:
What a resurrection of joy after so many years to see that Handwriting, whose wondrous machicolations would seemingly suffice to protect the Garden of Eden, where the Angel (now redundant) bearer of the flaming sword, stands sentinel…Need I tell you that your wonderful letter is no more than an exquisite drawing as far as I am concerned, and I can’t make out a single word.
I think if someone said that about my handwriting I would first be horrified and then break down in great gales of laughter.
I suppose the creative mind of Proust enjoyed illegible letters because it allowed him to make them say whatever he liked. I will have to give that approach a try when next I receive a letter from a long time friend and correspondent whose scrawl is difficult to read and sometimes illegible and for which she is unashamed. I wonder if I should warn her that I am just going to start making up things when I can’t read her writing or wait and see how she reacts to my replies? I think I won’t say anything and see what happens. She is a person of good humor who will likely find it entertaining.