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.

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.