Neil Gaiman

Pen and ink vs computer

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Is it harder to write now that it’s easier to write?

Hundreds of years ago, there was no digital editing, paper was expensive and to find a pen you had to butcher a peacock*.

*Or something. Turns out quill pens were made from goose, swan and turkey feathers.

19th century landowner, explorer and ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister used to write her letters using every last inch of paper – it was pricey stuff.

In a ‘cross-written’ letter to her lover, Sibella Maclean, she turns the paper to write across what she’s already written.

In it she says, “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity.”

With thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

When writing materials were expensive, you would want to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say before committing quill to parchment.

Shakespeare, (who may have written King Lear during lockdown) never crossed a line, according to legend. But maybe he just had a massively inflated ego.

These days, you can just digitally vomit onto a word document, and there is no cost to you if the majority of it is garbage.

But is this a less satisfying way to write?

Some modern writers still swear by the pen and ink approach.

Neil Gaiman explained on The Tim Ferris Show that he usually writes his first drafts longhand, with notebook and fountain pen.

Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.

Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life.

Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Neil Gaiman

Then he extracts the best lines to type up..

Then, I’ll sit down and type.

I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Neil Gaiman

Creativity is about gumption as much as it’s about talent.

And there’s a lot to be said, psychologically, for doing things this way.

A second draft sounds more satisfying if the method is to select the best lines from a notebook, rather than deleting great swathes of digital text.

There might be something to slowing down and writing ‘analogue’ before committing finger to keyboard.

Do creative projects have a life of their own?

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” – George RR Martin

This gave me great hope when I read it a few weeks ago.

“Maybe I’m a gardener!” I thought to myself, watering some tomato plants. Maybe that’s why I’m rubbish at writing long stuff. I get scared by the bigness of a project and dive into a completely alien way of working.

Maybe, I think, if I work out what all the sections of this are, and plan it to the nth degree, then eventually I’ll just fill in the detail in all the little compartments I’ve created and the thing will be finished and beautifully structured.

But I just don’t work like that. Neil Gaiman explains his writing method:

“Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.” – Neil Gaiman (The Tim Ferriss Show”)

Another gardener! Write it, allow anything at all to happen, and then pick out the bits that make up an elegant plot in draft 2. He even goes on to say he prefers hand-writing his first drafts because then he can pick out the bits he wants when typing up, rather than having to delete whole pages of work on the computer.

Then I listened to another interview today which suggests that we may not be in control of our creative projects at all.

A true creator knows that you follow the thing to where it’s going, not where you think it ought to go.” – Adam Savage (via Tim Ferriss, again.)

Now that’s really interesting.

Is it that a creative project has a life of its own, and we’re not the master of the thing we came up with at all?

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo

It’s all very well for people of extraordinary vision like Michelangelo, but not everything is captured inside a block of marble. And if it is, not everybody can see the statue. Some just see a very difficult and painful afternoon.

I guess if you look at it from outside your own skull and the point in time that you’re at, every creative project has a trajectory and a rate of ‘success’, but we can’t see all of it from the beginning.

So maybe the point is just to set off along the path, and see where we get to.