Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

We often dream of perfection, but we rarely, if ever, achieve it. There was one exceedingly minor business, in one all too brief period,  in which I did attain such heights: my spelling prowess in my early school grades. I do not know if I ever attained the competency levels of those who excel at the national spelling bees that continue to enthrall so many folks every year, but there was no doubt I was a contender. Classroom testing of spelling prowess was carried out by dint of the dreaded ‘dictation test’: our teacher would read out loud, first, a list of words to be spelled out, and then, a short passage. We listened and wrote.

Through, I think, the fifth grade, (after which such ‘dictation tests’ ceased), I maintained a perfect record in my spelling examinations. I did not spell a single word wrong. (I also never suffered a single spelling correction in any of my essay assignments–this record ran through my high school years.) Indeed, I was often puzzled by the fact that my classmates did not score similar grades. What was the problem–did they not know what the word looked in question like? My spelling prowess was not a secret; word of my never-ending stream of perfect scores in these tests was not slow in spreading among my mates–we were a nerdy bunch. Needless to say, I lapped up the ensuing admiration.

Interestingly enough, I only encountered spelling difficulties–of a kind–once I began using word processors. My physical connection with the medium of writing changed, rewiring my linkages to the written word. I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated against the introduction of spelling errors.) Identifying and correcting these added labors to my writing that I was unfamiliar with.

The differences between the two modes of writing were many–perhaps too many to list here. Some were immediately relevant to my spelling difficulties, to the business of orthographic errors. In writing with a word processor, I interacted with a keyboard; my fingers found keys and transferred letters to the screen. In writing with a pen, I traced out the shapes of the letters, my hands pressing directly upon the surface of writing. A word processor always produced a printed draft that I read and corrected before handing in the final version; perhaps I grew careless, trusting myself to remove spelling mistakes from the final version. A fountain pen produced a near-final version in ink that was not easily or cleanly corrected; the tracings of my pen were infected with this awareness. (The introduction of spelling and grammar checkers in word processors might have made things worse for some folks, tempted now to plunge ahead and correct later as the offending words are flagged in rude highlights.)

The valorization of spelling prowess seems, for some reason, a curiously old-fashioned affectation. I’m not sure why. A misspelled word still seems an abomination of sorts.

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.

Writing: The Tools Change, the Neurosis Endures

Philip Hensher has written a book–The Missing Ink–on handwriting. In it, according to Jeremy Harding, he:

[T]akes the view that we impress our individuality on a page when we make signs with a pen or pencil, that our culture is reaffirmed as we persist in the practice, and that the production of handwritten texts is a rich expression of both. If handwriting disappears, he warns, ‘some other elements of civilised life may die with this art, or skill, or habit.’

Like most people I know, I write on a word processor. The quality of my writing, when it comes up for judgment, is almost always a matter of content, not form. But there was a time when the form of my written word was a subject of active external critique too: my handwriting used to be the subject of commentary, feedback, revision and sometimes, intense attempts at makeovers.

I learned cursive writing the way most students of my generation did: by filling out workbooks supplied to me by parents. I traced out, steadily and persistently, page after page of model sentences, showing them to my parents when done, and then moving on to the next assignment. Fortunately, this drudgery did not last too long. There was ample opportunity for practice with my school assignments, the finished versions of which invariably provoked comments on the handwriting on display from those who graded them.

My handwriting’s quality occupied a steady middle point between the truly excellent and the dreadful. I was dimly aware of the abyss below and the summits above; I struggled to stay out of the former but could never quite make it to the latter. Not that I tried too hard.  A steadfast devotion to the adequate seems to have been a hallmark of my academic work even back then. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t envious of those whose writing was excellent; I craved the gasps of admiration from our peers and the praise of my teachers. I just couldn’t rouse myself to do anything about it. In that sense, perhaps, my handwriting is revelatory: it often starts off strong and then trails off, its form decaying as the page progresses, thus perhaps acting as revelation of my lack of commitment to tasks undertaken but not completed.

I did mount a couple of serious attempts to change my handwriting. Most notably in the tenth grade, when struck by the pristine beauty of a classmate’s ‘printed’ style, I ditched the flowing model I was most accustomed to, and took his style on. I stuck with it for a year before finding a retreat to my original form more conducive to my sanity. The change had been too much work.

I began using a word processor late: in graduate school. The undergraduate years had consisted almost entirely of  mathematics, statistics and the occasional essay-based exam, all of which I completed with a fountain pen. Since then, my handwriting has, I think, deteriorated, a process I have attempted to rectify on a periodic basis–most notably, by using a fountain pen again–but with little success.

To get back to Hensher’s point, I do not think my ‘individuality’ has been lost by my exclusively writing on a word processor; what is most distinctive about my thoughts comes through in that medium too. But what we do lose by the effacement of handwriting is a distinctive aesthetic pleasure that comes from the beautifully handwritten page. And by taking on the possibility of revisions allowed by the word processor perhaps we do shackle ourselves to the endless draft. And yet, as Harding points out, this can scarcely be blamed on technology; the non-stop reviser of writing came well before the wordprocessor.

The tools change, the neurosis endures.

Distraction and Writing: Pen and Keyboard Tales

A couple of days ago, I wrote my post on fountain pens with, er, a fountain pen; this one is being written in the old-fashioned way, on a keyboard, in the WordPress blogging tool/scratchpad. Writing a few hundred words with a fountain pen was a revelatory experience in several ways. (I realize this is self-indulgent navel gazing at its extreme, but bear with me.)

Most significantly, the nature of the distraction experienced in these two modes of writing was significantly different. When I write with a keyboard, using a word processor, or like now, using a blogging tool, my fingers rest on the medium of distraction, the computer. To procrastinate, to look away, to divert myself, I need do very little; I move my right hand to the mouse and click on a tab. These tabs often function like ticker-tapes: at any moment, one of them could light up with a notification for news that must be attended to. For instance, as I type now, I have tabs open on my GMail Inbox, and my Facebook Profile page: these could suddenly show a ‘(1)’  to let me know a little missive has arrived; when that happens, more often than not, I pull away from work. (Who am I kidding? I always check.) Often, I don’t even need a notification to divert me; I simply leave the writing–because I’ve hit a sticky patch–and move away.  (I just checked a Facebook notification – someone accepted a Friend request.)

When I wrote my post with a fountain pen, in long-hand, in the pages of a notebook, I wrote a little more steadily and persistently, working my way through three paragraphs before I stopped to reflect. In part that was because it was an easy post to write, but partly also because I was not writing on a keyboard, so close to distraction. This is a little simplistic, but I do think that writing with an implement that is also the site of our distinctively modern distraction makes a small difference to the nature of its hold on us. (This does not, for a second, mean that those who write with pens are less distracted.)

The physical particulars of composition with a word processor also affect the phenomenology of distraction. When I wanted to insert a paragraph between my second and third originals, I went back, drew a little arrow to indicate insertion, and wrote in my para on the opposing page. (I also added a new closing line to the fourth para, squeezing it in in the little space available.) Cutting-and-pasting makes such tasks trivial, but it also provides an opportunity to divert oneself by toying with the text, moving it hither and thither, reluctant to commit, all the while engaging in a holding action with the business of writing more. This ability to manipulate the text so effortlessly can lead to paralyzing play; by contrast, the physical contact of nib on paper, the not-so-easily-erased ink made visible, can induce commitment and fidelity to the written word.

It’s perhaps significant that these initial thoughts, prompted by a new writing experience, should be centered on distraction; nothing else is quite as indicative of writing’s challenges.

The Return of the Ink-Stained Finger: Writing with a Fountain Pen

As a youngster, I used fountain pens to write. I started my school career by writing in pencil, and then at some point, we were switched over to fountain pens by fiat. School work had to be done in ink; ball-pens didn’t count; and that was that. I do not remember my first shopping trip for a pen, but I remember many of those that followed. Budgets were always limited, so I had to reign in the most ambitious of my desires and settle for a compromise. The high-end varietals–Parker, Waterman, Sheaffer, Mont Blanc–were always out of reach, but there were plenty of other brands available at reasonable prices. A few Chinese brands–Wing Sung being one of them–were all the rage in this category, and for most of my school career, I used these.

Fountain pens require ink, so inkbottles were procured as well, and after a few informal lessons in the pneumatics of squeeze fillers, the budding writer–sorry, schoolboy–was off and running. And of course, we were, all too soon, transformed into the proverbial ink-fingered students with smudges of black, blue–and not just any blue, but Royal Blue!–and blue-black ink on our finger-tips, palms, and rather inevitably, chins, noses, and sometimes even lips. (The precursor of the ballpen-chewer is the nib-sucker.)

We grew to be wary of the smudged page, to blow gently on a just-written paragraph before closing an exercise book. The heat in India meant that our sweaty forearms ruined many, many pages of school work, and perhaps our teachers grew to accept these Rorschach-ridden assignments with forbearance and patience. We learned to be selective in picking exercise-books to write on; pages made of out excessively thin paper would let the ink bleed through, and ruin our work. We became familiar with ‘writer’s fingers’–that affliction that makes all users of fountain pens wring their hands after an extended spell of writing. The fountain pen slowly became an extension of myself, a magical object that grew out of my fingers and let me express myself in the only way I knew. (Mysteriously, I never used blotting paper, not once.)

I used fountain pens through high school and my undergraduate days. I wrote my final exams for my undergraduate degree in mathematics and statistics with a fountain pen; the last time I would use one for an extended spell of writing. When I moved to the US in 1987, the era of the fountain pen seemingly came to an end. I used ballpoint pens and micro-tip pens; I wrote on word-processors. My handwriting deteriorated; I had been warned about this as a child: ‘Don’t use ball-pens – they’ll ruin your handwriting!’ I wrote my Ph.D qualifying exams–two four-hour sessions–with a micro-tip; the last extended spell of longhand writing I have done.

Some fifteen years ago, a girlfriend gifted me a Mont Blanc pen. (Thank you!). It used cartridges; I used it a few times but the word processor had taken over–even for note-taking–and using it just for noting down phone numbers and small scribbles felt silly. I would install an ink cartridge, use it for a few days, fall off the wagon, the ink would dry up, and I would give up. But the feel of the nib on the paper, the desire to see my old handwriting emerge, still remained seductive and kept up a steady siren call, pulling me back to the Mont Blanc case lying on my book shelves.

So, finally, a week or so ago, I opened the box, took out the pen, fitted in another cartridge, dipped the nib into a cup of water to clear out the dried up ink, and resolved to start using it again. And so I did. I wrote this post in long-hand, copying it into the blog after finishing up, editing it very, very lightly as I did so.

Note: I hope to write a follow-up post soon, describing the differences in the writing process between using word-processors and fountain pens.