The Physical Dimensions of Writing

Writing is a physical activity. This fact is quite well known to schoolchildren who write–with pencils and pens–diligently, and at length on their notebooks. (It must have been known too, to Georges Simenon, whose fingers must have needed dousing in ice water after his daily ritual of prolific pencil-fueled writing.) But it is even common knowledge to those among their cohort who now type on tablet and laptop keyboards; the wrists ache, the fingers are bruised. The exhaustion that results after a long spell of writing is not just that of brain cells wearily picking themselves off the cranial floor, but also that of limbs strained by the constant expression of the writer’s commands. And then, somehow, later in life, overcome by the over-intellectualizing of this particular mode of interaction with the world, the notion emerges that writing is all brain and no body, that a disembodied intelligence is at play, that writing enables an escape from physical confines of the body–which is true in a way, but not if taken literally.

Small wonder then, that writers are acutely conscious of their bodies when they write and keenly attuned and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, are just as deserving of attention.

One way to hint at my sensitivity to the physical dimension of writing on a computer is to note that a central reason why I will never buy a Mac is because I do not like its machines’–whether desktop or laptop–keyboards. Their keys do not afford my fingers the right kind of tactile response; they do not provide me the feedback that I subconsciously seek when I press down on them. I have had favorites in the past: the AT&T 4425 and IBM 3270 terminals were perhaps the  most deeply satisfying in terms of their immediate responsiveness, in their ‘give’ and in how they seemed to facilitate the rapid movement of my fingers over them. (I’m not a trained touch typist but over the years my fingers have, to some extent, internalized the locations of letter on keyboards and now move with some facility over them.)

These preferences mean that I very quickly disdain, or approve of, particular writing spaces or implements because of how they generate both a physical and mental space for writing. The ergonomic comfort of a chair and desk are obviously factors, but just as important is an ineffable sense of connectedness–in the right sort of way–to my writing machine and through it, to the visible word that is the result of my writing. Thus, because I do not like writing on laptop keyboards, and will only do so when absolutely forced to do so, I have hardly ever written in coffee-shops or on the  move. For better or worse, I’m desk-bound. (In the post just linked to, I noted this same physical aspect of writing.)

This physical dimension of writing is important for the writing process in the simplest of ways: to start writing, you must place your hands on the media through which you write. Put pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.

Once contact is made, the game can begin.

4 comments on “The Physical Dimensions of Writing

  1. Absolutely true! The physical frame within which we write is vital to the way the writing emerges. Something typed on a screen will differ, by nature of the physical action needed to write that, from something written by hand. Something typed on a laptop on a restaurant table or actually on a lap will differ from what we might type on a desktop computer, because the movements and positions are physically going to be different. Our movements guide and frame our thoughts, as do the devices with which we write. I can see it in the writings of people like Lord Dunsany, who used a quill pen to write with, and the nature of it – to me at least – shows in his stylings.

    To me it’s a subtle but certainly important part of writing – as much a factor as mastery of many of the practical skills involved in assembling words and content.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Matthew,

      Thanks for your comment and for your perspective. This line–‘Our movements guide and frame our thoughts, as do the devices with which we write’–captures it very well.

  2. What comes into your mind can be pictured by the fingertips. It does not matter how the procedure is done, as long as it will be understood easily. A great mind can not just be overshadowed by skills on gadgets.

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