Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Theroux on the Power of the Pen

In the May 18, 2012, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Paul Theroux (author of The Lower River) discusses how writing with pen and paper helps improve his creativity. Excerpts:
I am writing these words on a sunny afternoon at the beach in Hawaii, and it so happens that this is my subject -- not Hawaii or the curling surf, or the humpback whale that just breached about a mile offshore. My subject is that I am sitting with a pen in my hand, writing in longhand, on a clipboard pad. ...

A woman came to me with her first novel in typescript and asked me to read it. I read the first 50 pages. I told her that I found it hasty and insufficient. I quoted Conrad to her: "My task ... is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel -- it is, before all, to make you see."

In the pages I read of the woman's novel I did not discern any close attention to a word or phrase. "How can I make it better?" she asked. I had the answer. I advised her to put her computer away and to get a pen and a good pad of paper, and then to sit down and copy the 50 pages in her own handwriting --- slowly, studying each word.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). Now, I'm sure Theroux's assertion will strike many as controversial. After all, everyone has his favorite compositional habits. I like to type in Microsoft Word, and when I'm feeling easily distractible I'll peck out rough drafts in the stripped-down, plain-text app Q10. Sometimes I'll pace around my office while talking into a digital audio recorder. But when none of those methods work -- and they often don't -- I turn to Theroux's old standby. And you know what? It helps. I have a heavy-bodied rollerball pen (a Christmas present from years back) and a three-inch stack of scrap paper. The pen's ink flows easily, and it doesn't matter if I ruin ten pages searching for just the right sentence.

(Picture: CC 2009 by LucasTheExperience)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

The problem with pens is that they have a feature-creep every bit as large as computer programs.

I use a green-mottled Platinum #3776 fountain pen when at home (best graduation present I ever got) and Pilot Rollerball V5's when I feel theres a chance of the pen being lost. Unfortunately, this has spoiled me, and it is almost painful to write with a true ball-point pen--the thing slides all over the place without resistance.

On the other hand, I also got a cheap line of calligraphy fountain pens. Writing an outline in an elaborate faux-gothic script does provide a certain zen-like focus, but may be taking the "slow-down-and-write" thing a bridge too far.

Loren Eaton said...

Honestly? I still have a yen for those old no. 2 pencils I used in grade school. I can think of a hundred reasons why they're inferior to every other writing implement, but they bring me back to a childhood where composition was fresh and new and fun.