On thinking through my fingers…
“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
– Isaac Asimov
I did something terrifically avant garde the other day. I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote a letter. Yes, wrote it, with a pen, not a keyboard.
Some of you will find this declaration risible. People have been writing letters to each other for centuries, after all. But, for me, this development is – ahem – noteworthy.
In this case, it was in response to another hand-written letter. I’ve had a few of these in recent months, since the publication of my novel Able Seacat Simon, which, as some of you know, concerns a famous naval incident that happened almost sixty years ago. So as well as the usual tweets and emails, I also get letters, because many of the readers of a book set in the late 1940s grew up in an age when penning them was the norm.
And up to now (to my shame) I’ve been a tad slack in my responses, eschewing the traditional in favour of the modern typewritten missive, on the grounds that my writing is so creative, and so idiosyncratic, and…. Oh, alright, then. Such a scrawl.
Last week, however, finding myself on a long train journey, I decided to fill the time by catching up with correspondence and, without my laptop (left at home because of my irritatingly cronky shoulder), was compelled to go old-school.
And what a revelation the exercise turned out to be. First selecting the paper and matching envelope (I am a martyr to my stationery addiction), choosing the pen (no real choice there; I have a Silver Bic Crystal fetish) and then the biggie, as I watched the verdant pastures rolling by – selecting what to say and how best to say it.
Again, you might think this is all so much nonsense. I’m a ‘lady of letters’, albeit of narrative ones mostly, which means perfectly formed sentences ought to positively drip from my pen.
But, you know what? It’s not that simple. There is a definite rhythm to hand-writing anything, which is quite different from creating sentences on a screen – or, indeed, for any other form of ‘written’ communication.
When you handwrite, as an adult, there are standards. It’s imperative the words come out perfectly. If I make a mistake in something another person is going to cast their eye over, there’ll be no scrubbing it out and writing the correct word above it. I have to rip it up and start all over again. (Which is why I have such a huge box of unaccompanied greeting card envelopes.)
So ‘think before you speak’ is the order of the day. Think your thought, then spend time pondering how best to convey it – how it sounds in your head, how it flows on the page, how it relates to what’s gone before and is probably coming after. Only then, as with a chess piece, do you commit.
If you write letters often, this process probably happens subconsciously. But it’s a process, even so. And vital, because unlike most screen-based creative processes, there’s no handy cut and paste option.
And isn’t that what makes a hand-written letter such a thing of beauty? That it’s considered. That, assuming it’s not a rushed, ranting missive (which it would hardly ever be these days, because we have so many other tools for that purpose, don’t we?), it’s entirely what it was intended to be.
Which is precisely why it’s so singular and worthwhile. Because, oratory and CVs and suchlike aside, we mostly don’t give our personal thoughts such careful buffing and polishing before sending them out into the world, do we? We ‘fire off’ angry emails, we ‘bash out’ skeins of texts, we tweet (or, rather, dance to someone else’s tedious linguistic tune), and our face-to-face encounters are, by their very nature, often impulsive/reactive in the extreme.
A handwritten letter neatly avoids all those communication complications, which is why psychologists often suggest it as therapy. It reaches its recipient fully-formed, fit for purpose, and, at a time when the click-sharing of ‘facts’ is such a blunt and divisive global instrument, doesn’t lend itself to casual dissemination either.
A hand-written letter has integrity. It is timeless. It is precious. It is sensual. And better still, because it requires effort, it makes you smarter as well.
Better with words. Better at thinking. Fleeter of thought. More creative. And it’s definitely a corresponding workout for the wrist.
Best of all, though, is that receiving one such an unrivalled pleasure, don’t you think?
Answers on a sheet of pristine aqua vellum.