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Mary Gordon on the Joy of Notebooks and How Writing by Hand Catalyzes Creativity

“However thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.”

Every few years, a new anthology of essays on why writers write comes along. While most tend to be invariably excellent, one of the best presents I’ve ever received was a copy of the 2001 collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (public library). What made this particular tome special, besides the wonderful selection of essays by contemporary literary icons like Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, was that many of the essays were signed by their respective authors.

One of my favorite pieces in the volume comes from Mary Gordon, at the time in her early 50s, and is titled “Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper.”

Gordon begins:

There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’

It’s a bad business, this writing. No marks on paper can ever measure up to the world’s music in the mind, to the purity of the image before its ambush by language. Most of us awake paraphrasing words from the Book of Common Prayer, horrified by what we have done, what we have left undone, convinced that there is no health in us. We accomplish what we do, creating a series of stratagems to explode the horror. Mine involves notebooks and pens. I write by hand.

Like Anaïs Nin, who took great joy in making books manually, Gordon celebrates the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship:

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 fact, the tool itself is a fanciful transporter, a gateway to a different sense of self:

My pen. It is a Waterman’s, black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon. Elizabeth Bowen, maybe, only French. Anna de Noialles, but played by Deborah Kerr. My pen is elegant, even if I’m wearing the terry robe whose frayed state suggests a fashion statement from a gulag. My ink is Waterman’s black. Once while traveling I could only find blue-black. I used it for a few weeks, but it made me feel like a punitive headmistress.

Gordon, who subscribes to Joan Didion’s cult of the notebook, goes on to describe her various notebooks, acquired during her travels and serving equally varied purposes — a small, soft-covered one from her last trip to Paris, several confectionary-colored ones from Orleans, a long, canary one for fiction and a square red one for journalism from Dublin, a hard turquoise one for literary criticism purchased across the street from the British Museum, a handful of Swedish ones in primary colors for her most uncensored journals. A fellow fan of diaries and letters, she then contributes to the daily routines of other famous writers a tour of her own:

So what do I do after I’ve played with my pen and notebooks like a time-killing kindergartner? Before I take pen to paper, I read. I can’t begin my day reading fiction; I need the more intimate tone of letters and journals. From these journals and letters — the horse’s mouth — I copy something that has taken my fancy, some exemplum or casual observation I take as advice. These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter.

I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. In my Proust notebook I write down whatever it is I’ve made of those dense and demanding sentences. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.

I listen to music, often string quartets or piano sonatas. … I enjoy the music and the rhythm of the mindless copying. Or not entirely mindless; I’m luxuriating in the movement of the words which are, blessedly, not mine. I’m taking pleasure in the slow and rapid movements of my pen, leaving its black marks on the whiteness of paper. … I can’t listen to music when reading poetry or fiction. Into the notebook I am using for the fiction I’m writing, I copy paragraphs whose heft and cadence I can learn from. And some days, if I’m lucky, the very movement of my hand, like a kind of dance, starts up another movement that allows me to forget the vanity, the folly, of what I am really about.

Nestled between the words of others, Gordon finds a certain comfort, soothing assurance that the road, while winding and often dark, has been traveled before and doesn’t lead into the abyss:

It is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before. Those whom we cannot believe have ever thought of failing, or of (as I do each morning) envying hod carriers, toxic waste inspectors, any of those practitioners of high and graceful callings that involve jobs it is possible to do.

(For a necessary antidote to this dystopian mindset of writing, take heart with Ray Bradbury, Amelia E. Barr, and Elizabeth Gilbert.)

Gordon concludes:

I don’t know what people who work on computers do to get themselves started. I hope never to learn firsthand.

We read Mary Gordon, then we use our hands and wrists in typing out her thoughts to catalyze our own.

For more wisdom on writing, see H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Mary Gordon portrait via Columbia University


Dear John: Rare Recording of a Vietnam War Soldier Reading a Breakup Letter from Home

“Dear John I love you so, Dear John you’ve got to go.”

Some months ago, I shared a train ride with Jezebel founder and all-around great gal Anna Holmes who, upon finding out about my obsession with love letters, told me about a book she’d written nearly a decade ago: Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), a magnificent collection spanning several centuries of breakups, both famous and ordinary. Naturally, I hunted down a copy, in which I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite missive of “dry sadness.” But Anna also mentioned something she’d discovered over the course of her research that never made it, for obvious reasons, into the book: A rare recording of a Vietnam War soldier nicknamed Johnny Smack-O reading a lengthy “Dear John” letter — the blanket term used to describe “I’m leaving you letters,” common in the military — sent to him by the woman with whom he’d been living for two and a half years prior to the war. The letter’s author, who remains unknown, had just found out that Johnny had another relationship and the two women, in having discovered each other’s existence, had bonded over Johnny’s despicable deceit.

Anna, who is on Twitter and has a new book in the works, has kindly sent me the recording — enjoy. The full transcript, including snippets of Johnny’s conversation with fellow serviceman David Syster, who taped the audio, and another man on the same radio frequency who overheard the two, appears in the book.

Oh, Jonny, when I sit here at my desk, writing this letter, looking at the walls and my desk covered with your pictures and I feel an intimacy but, for some reason, it seems to be melting right before me, and I feel like throwing up. Why? Because I’m such a fool, such a fuckin’ fool, to have fallen for such a lowly bastard as you.

Anna contextualizes the peculiar subculture of such letters:

Gordon Angus Mackinlay, a veteran of the British and Australian armies, claims that the term [Dear John] came from a music-hall song popular just prior to World War I whose chorus went:

Dear John I love you so
Dear John you’ve got to go
Dear John I love you so
Dear John you must go


Stories of Dear John letters abound, but, for obvious reasons, the actual letters themselves are difficult to find. Michael Lee Lanning, an author and army veteran, says he remembers ceremonies in the service in which Dear Johns were burned or flushed down toilets. (Another veteran claims that Dear Johns were used as toilet paper.) Vietnam War veteran Guy Hunter says that some of his fellow marines posted their Dear Johns on the walls in the platoon headquarters, where they remained to either fall apart or be ripped down and thrown away.

Hell Hath No Fury is a treasure trove from cover to cover and features stirring, scathing, sad, and satirical letters from common people and literary greats alike, including favorites like Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin.


Edward Gorey’s Vintage Illustrations for H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds

Two classic masters of the macabre and wonderful, together.

Beloved mid-century illustrator Edward Goreygrim alphabetician, masterful letter-writer, dispenser of visual snark, semi-secret sort-of-pornographer — was born on this day in 1925. During his seven-year stint living in New York City between 1953 and 1960, he worked at the Doubleday art department — which also employed young Andy Warhol — and illustrated a number of books by famous mainstream authors, including the T. S. Eliot children’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which the Broadway musical Cats is based.

At the end of his time at Doubleday, Gorey illustrated a special edition of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (public library) for the celebrated Looking Glass Library series, published in 1960 under the New York Review of Books Classics imprint. One of Gorey’s inimitable pen-and-ink drawings adorns the beginning of each chapter. Here is a taste:

The War of the Worlds, like all things Gorey, is sublime in its entirety. And what better excuse than his birthday for celebrating his life and legacy by supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House?


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