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The Pen is Mightier than the Key


When I started out writing I was just a kid, and I did everything with pencil or pen on Big Chief tablets. Tablet, in this case, refers to a pad of lined newsprint; no electronics involved. Having watched me fill hundreds of tablet pages with stories, poems, and even some “novels,” my mother admonished me, when I was about ten years old, henceforth never to write on anything of lesser quality than real notebook paper, and to use ink, not pencil. The implication was that my writing was worth preserving. It was an important moment of validation.

When I was twelve, my parents gave me a little Smith-Corona portable typewriter whose manufacture date I recently discovered is 1926. It was old when I received it in 1961, but it worked if you put enough effort into it. I wrote a “book” on it, The Smashed Ball Bearing, a collection of experimental pieces, the less said about those the better.

I went through several other typewriters, the last of them an electric portable, in high school, college, and after taking up residency in New York City, by which time I had a degree in playwriting and was writing plays. I remember all-night typing sessions when a script was due the next day and I wanted a clean copy to turn in.

Then came the mighty IBM PC. I was already up on word processors because of day jobs. I had been well-remunerated when a play of mine was produced in 1984, and decided I deserved a personal word processor. I bought one with two – count 'em – two floppy drives (no hard drive), a daisy wheel printer, and word processing software called MultiMate. (To this day, I maintain that that setup is all I have ever needed to do my job, and everything else that has come along has been nothing but annoying diversions, with no added advantage for creative writing, and I'm prepared to defend that statement if you want to argue.)

My point here, from which I've digressed badly, is that all the while, I was writing first drafts entirely by hand, with ink, usually on legal pads. Then I would rewrite freely as I typed up the first draft, and subsequently make notes on the printout with a pen, and then incorporate the changes in the document on the computer. I would repeat that process for as many drafts as I produced, never having to re-type the whole thing. It was great.

Over the years, I began to get comfortable with just making changes directly onto the computer, finally skipping the handwritten notes almost entirely, with the exception of a few notes jotted during rehearsals. By the time I was in my forties, the key had decidedly become mightier than the pen.

I think, at that time, I was like most writers today regarding computers: We've realized the digital benefits and have managed to break the old typewriter, not to mention the paper and pen, habits, if we're even old enough to have had them in the first place. But now something else has happened to me.

Because a favorite fountain pen and a quality ballpoint or two have remained, through sentiment, in my top desk drawer, I've occasionally pulled one or the other of them out and doodled, or written a letter to an old friend, or a card to someone I felt deserved more than an email. These archaic tools have enjoyed enough use that they haven't rusted away. And now that I live away from New York City, in a house with more than one place to sit down, I've gradually re-developed my use of pen and paper, because frankly, writing by hand reminds me, on some visceral level, of the romantic dream of being a writer that I had as a kid.

Well enough, you may say. Take your time and piddle around with your pen and paper. You don't have a deadline to meet, so you can afford this trivial pursuit. But I mean to say that it's actually not so trivial. While there's no doubt that I can type a lot faster than I can scribble, I have found that having to slow down has its creative advantages. And I've also found that writing by hand – whether with a favored fountain pen or just a pencil stub I've grabbed out of the catch-all drawer in the kitchen when I'm hit with an idea – lends something special to the process. I know the correct phrase, and use “something special” instead, because I have to be careful not to throw your “off” switch.

What the “something special” is, is a spiritual connect. You may call me an atheist (I prefer not to) if you hear me out on religion, but I have always (well, always since I was about thirty-five) maintained that we human beings have a spiritual nature. It can be hard to connect with it, but it is in us. I can't speak for other animals, but humans, I'm convinced, have it. I have worked, sometimes rather hard and in various ways, to try and get in touch with my spiritual aspect, with varying degrees of success. I was pretty good at it as a little boy, but didn't know what to call it. So, finally, my point: I claim that for me, of the two physical connections to wording, the pen is mightier than the keyboard because it is a better connection between the mental me and the spiritual me. It will never do the job that my keyboard does, of course. But it has its place. This is what I know that I thought perhaps you may not, so it was worth saying.

Just to put this all in context, I wrote this essay on my computer in about an hour. To have done it with pen and paper would probably have taken me all day, and then I would have had to type it up anyway. I do compose on the computer. I'm not advocating that you use a pen; I'm just saying that sometimes I do.