writing, hand writing and pens

It seems that lots of us are fascinated by writers and how they do what they do. There was for instance a memorable photographic series in the Guardian about writer’s rooms that many of us loved. And there is a ready market for books written by authors about their own writing (for example here), and for anthologies about the everyday habits of writers. The subjects of these articles and books are generally fiction/non fiction writers, people who might be loosely clumped together as Literature of various persuasions.

There is much less written about academic writers – but perhaps there is the same appetite for information about our secret and eccentric habits. Just recently #sociologicaldesk appeared on twitter showing the varying degrees and kinds of minimalism, mess, cats, books and technological brain extensions adopted by social scientists. And there are some webby descriptions of academic writing processes – including my own. But there certainly seems to be room for much more writing and pictures about the actual milieu and practices that we scholarly types variously adopt.

Now I’m a bit of a Roland Barthes fan and I often go back to his collected interviews (2009) in which he speaks, a lot, about his own processes of writing. I’m sure that many of us relate to his stationery fetish:

I would say… that I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments. I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens – I don’t know what to do with all of them! And yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them.

When felt-tipped pens appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. Since then I’ve gotten tired of them because the point flattens out too quickly. I’ve also used pen nibs – not the “ Sergeant Major” which is too dry, but softer nibs like the “J”. In short, I’ve tried everything… except Bics with which I feel no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a “Bic style” which is really just for churning out copy, writing which merely transcribes thought.

In the end I always return to fine fountain pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely require. (p 178)

Of course Barthes was speaking in a time pre computer. He was one of those people who wrote his text longhand and then finally typed it on his new electric typewriter– with two fingers apparently, being somewhat late to keyboarding. He spoke to interviewers about his love of what he called

…scription, the action by which we manually trace signs. …. Writing is the hand, and thus the body: its impulses, controlling mechanisms, rhythms, weights, glides, complications, flights… the subject with its ballast of desire and the unconscious. (p 193)

Barthes likened this embodied scription to the work of Cy Twombly, and as I read Barthe’s words I also imagined looking at Twombly’s big loops across a canvas – and making them myself.

2014-07-30 10.59.30
(unedited research photo from Tate summer school 2014)

The notion of something beyond putting words on the page, but closing the distance between thought and writing through the physical act of writing, was taken much further by Tim Ingold in Lines. I like to think that Barthes and Ingold would have had an interesting conversation about writing with the hand because, like Ingold, Barthes was highly ambivalent about the need for machines to help with writing. He wasn’t fond of his typewriter. It erased the thought processes of writing, he said. With handwriting the crossing out, the additional notes, the insertions, the corrections are all visible. This rethinking in text form was, Barthes suggested, the work of an author.

The writer is someone who thinks that language is a pure instrument of thought, who sees only a tool in language. For the author, on the contrary, language is a dialectical space where things are made and unmade, where the author’s own subjectivity is immersed and dissolved. (p 105)

Now, little snippets like these can keep me thinking about writing for a long time. Do I think of writing as a tool? Or am I an ‘author’?  Does the fact that I use a computer mean that I am missing out on something important in the process of writing? Have I put production above the embodied pleasure of writing? Or is my preference for particular fonts – Avenir being my writing font of choice – some kind of screen equivalent to Barthe’s love of particular pens and nibs? My words look clearer and more relaxed to me when they are in Avenir, so much less bureacratic than in Times or Cambria.

It seems to me that reading about and hearing from other academic writers is not simply a voyeuristic act – although it is of course that. It is also a stimulus to considering my/our own practices of producing text. This is much more than just putting words on a screen or page. Perhaps focusing on the practices of writing is a kind of (often tacit) crucible for the ways we think about the processes of academic knowledge production more generally. Barthes certainly suggests that this is so.

There’s much more in Barthes’ interviews than I’ve had space or time to divulge and I can certainly recommend a bit of a browse. And I’d like to hear about other places where I can read about academics talking about their own practices of writing…

Barthes, R (2009) The grain of the voice. Interviews 1962-1980. Evanston Illinois, Northwestern University Press.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Barthes, Cy Twombly, hand-writing, Tim Ingold and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to writing, hand writing and pens

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    I often wonder about the role of technology in shaping practices of writing/authoring. Once you’ve mastered the ‘tech’ bit – say, typing without consciously thinking about where your fingers are going, then I think it is possible to experience that immersion that Barthes talks about, as though language, or the search for the right language, is being taken out of the process – at least this is how it feels in comparison to the obsessive word-smithing which can really hold back the process if allowed out too early. In both these extremes it seems to me that the technology is playing a facilitative role – if you are obsessively word smithing it will certainly not stand in your way, and will offer you a range of functions; delete-cross out-track change-highlight to record or erase your process. And if using technology I’m able to immerse myself in a 1000 word splurge, the words sometimes seeming to appear on screen ahead of their conscious formulation in language, then it is difficult to see their necessarily being a disciplinary function to the technology which undermines creativity.

    The other advantage that technology offers the academic writer/author is scope for collaboration. This is perhaps something that separates us from other types of writer/author. We have to learn to write with others, which means learning to live withmessy, emergent, iterative texts with track changes running into several different colours, comment boxes down the side, and maybe an email chain of thoughts to accompany it. If these look messy even with the organisational possibilities offered us by technology then I can only imagine what came before must have required a great deal of work for pencil and paper (not to mention filing cabinet!) Perhaps people wrote together less – or else were more often physically co-located than today…?


  2. Simon Bailey says:

    Technology can be annoying too of course, like when your typing on you’re phone and their is all this auto correction.


  3. tinbrick says:

    For me the weather is a trigger. Summer break. I reckon it’s part of my research training in the tropics. I’ve written something about it here


  4. Interesting. I actually find handwriting off-putting now as it feels as if I have to slow down my thinking too much and I end up forgetting what I wanted to write. I find writing birthday cards and the like pure torture as the whole process seems to deliberate and laboured.

    Put me at a computer (and yes, typing with two fingers, occasionally 4), it seems that there is far more connection between hand and mind. I can just about keep up with my ideas and things just seem to flow better. I actually wish I could get voice typing software to work properly (drawback of being Glaswegian) as it even feels more natural for me to speak ideas than to type them.

    The author/writer distinction is new to me but it does make me wonder if different assignments demand different approaches. Writing a necessary literature review might require more of the writer side than, say, a profoundly-worked theoretical piece or even a think-piece for a magazine. Fascinating.


  5. For me the difference between being a writer and an author is not so straightforward. We all pick up writing, because we love the feel of words, expressions, how to sew ideas into forms that will reach out to others and then keep on refining the process over and over again, to take the least space to say what we want to. Oh yes, the pen is a great tool that we can hone our craft with and potentially a great weapon too.

    And indeed authoring is not far from that either, because in representing an idea, what it takes for that representation to become a justifiable one, we all have to negotiate the dialectical spaces, that not only enrich our own subjectivities but also those of the readers. In the end to become writers of things that we are proud of and do not want to change after we see them in their final formats is about dealing with this subjective element.

    I always love to begin every journal article (ditto with book ideas) with a pen- drawing up maps that initially bring to my mind how the final thing could look. It is another matter, by the time the journal publications come out, the whole thing is so far from where I began that I can only laugh! Anyhow that is the way people like me learn- who have not had the privilege of university training to write journal articles- life itself is a big university.

    I am totally, also on the track of fountain pens- absolutely love them.


  6. Pingback: except Bics with which I feel no affinity | !mprográfika

  7. alkegw says:

    I feel there is space for multiple ways of writing for the writer/author (and I have no idea where I would come down on that distinction). I like to jot down initial ideas with a pen of any sort, although I have tried putting memos in my phone (a way that I see students take notes now) but that doesn’t quite work for me unless it is an emergency (i.e. when I don’t have pen or pencil to hand).

    I then extend the idea into a text on the computer, negotiating between typing and talking to myself. However, when I am in a revision phase I often have to go back to writing by hand – and in that phase only my fountain pen will do. Once a chunk of that is done, the computer comes back in. I spent this weekend revising a draft I had written a while back and had to put the laptop away, but once the fountain pen was in my hand it was easy to see what needed to be changed (quite a bit as it turns out). Later this evening I will input the changes via the keyboard – and probably make more changes as I do, as my fine-tuning usually is done back at the computer.

    I also love hearing about how other people negotiate the writing process – a lot of people I know seem to have similar practices where the working with just one hand that typically is the handwriting or drawing process gives way to a process done with two hands – either typing or (when stuck) doing something that is tactile and farther removed from words, such as physically making something. At the end of the day I think these are different ways of keeping our conscious and subconscious mind working on the problem we are trying to tackle – and we know instinctively what tool(s) we need for the stages we are at.

    Now how to convince students about this is another matter…


  8. Susan Gollifer says:

    I have just discovered MILAN P1touch, now my favourite writing tool; as for strategies to keep me focused on my writing when I get stuck, I freewrite about not being able to write or respond to Pat’s blog!


  9. Pingback: Link Round-Up: All About Writing

  10. jillberry102 says:

    Loved this, Pat – thank you.

    It made me think of a number of things, such as when I made the leap from hand-writing what I wanted to say and then typing it onto the screen to composing at the keyboard, and what that meant in terms of my thought processes/composition. It also made me remember the Head of English in the school where I was a head saying, “I can only think when I have a pen in my hand.” I understood what she meant.

    As you know, I’m writing my doctoral research at the moment, and it’s HARD… I read this by Neil Gaiman the other day: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy and that hard.” My issue is that I COULD put lots of words one after another. But they might not be the right words….


  11. suecowley says:

    I loved this too (thanks Jill for the share). I find that my ideas come best when I scribble them late at night, but typing lets my thoughts flow more freely onto the page. I also love to form whole blog posts in my head while I am gardening. Then it’s just a case of typing them up. We’re lucky to have so many options but I kind of miss Calligraphy. 🙂


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