On Writing

Mary Gordon: A Writer's Tools

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.

I know that I talk about my pens and notebooks the way the master of a seraglio talked about his love slaves.  But let me tell you about my notebooks and my pens. 

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.  

I bought my pen at Arthur Brown & Brother on West Forty-sixth Street in Manhattan.  Oh, it was difficult.  I could have chosen silver or malachite or tortoiseshell; I could have gone modern with banana yellow; I could have bought something used before, a "genuine antique."  I could have chosen straw thin or cigar stubby.  I had to decide about points: fine, medium, thick.  Medium was modest, self-effacing, a "don't worry, be happy" partner.  Thick asserted its authority and mine.  But I chose fine; there was something about its resistance, the hint of a scratch, the brief reluctance to move on the next thing that provided the taste of austerity and discretion I seemed (although I had not known it till that moment) to be after. 

In my closet there is a shelf entirely devoted to notebooks.  I choose among them for the perfect relationship between container and the thing contained.  In choosing the notebooks, I am engaged not only in a process of categorization and differentiation, but in a geographical remembrance.  I buy notebooks wherever I go in the world.  Just as each country has a different cuisine, each has a different notebook culture.  And friends who know my fetish bring me notebooks from their travels. 

I have three types from France.  One, given to me by a student whom I had introduced to Proust, is robin's-egg blue on the outside; written in formal-looking script are the words livre de brouillon, book of rough drafts.  Its pages are unlined.  In it I keep my thoughts on my daily reading of Proust. 

The French specialize in soft-covered smallish notebooks; on my last trip to Paris I bought student exercise books in royal blue from the enormous Gilbert Jeune on Boulevard St.-Michel: their covers proclaim that I am a conquerante.  In Orleans I bought notebooks of confectionary colors: lime, strawberry, lemon.  Calligraphie, their black letters proclaim.  These malleable darlings are best for travel writing or short stories.  

In a smoke shop near Trinity College, Dublin, I bought long notebooks in canary (long fiction, not novels) and square red ones (journalism).  Both the red and yellow have the outline of a tower on the front, and the word Tara in Celtic script.  Across from the British Museum I found hard notebooks covered in a burlaplike material in turquoise, maroon and orange (literary criticism).

On my last trip to Italy I was contemplating a novel in three voices.  So I bought three each of three kinds of notebooks; some, in a Tuscan candy store, covered in shiny licorice black; some terra-cotta, like the roofs I saw from my window.  I bought those in a stationery store near the Pantheon on the same street where I bought a pair of forest-green suede gloves with a raspberry trim.  Near Santa Maria in Trastevere I bought three ecclesiastical-looking notebooks covered in black cardboard with a red binding.

There are some that are so pretty I use them as a consolation for the nauseating work of revision: soft pastels, sky blue, powder pink, with a gray Art Deco design.  I found them on a stand across from San Lorenzo in Florence, where I'd just come from seeing Michelangelo's allegorial sculptures in the Medici chapel, those masterpieces of lassitude or melancholy, those idols of inactivity and repose.

A secret of notebook lore is the treasure trove of Swedish notebooks, primary colors with neutral borders; fuchsia and mauve, peacock and dove-colored.  These seem so healthy, so sturdy, that I use them for my most uncensored journals: they can take it; they will keep it to themselves; nothing can hurt them and mum's the word.

On a trip to Vermont I splurged on a book of handmade paper bought in teal-colored suede.  These are for sentences that I write for their beauty as sentences: one sentence only per handmade page.

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.  Tina Turner will come later in the day; when I'm at my desk, I need my soul calmed.  I enjoy the music and the rythm 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 witeness of the paper. 

Then I proceed to the fiction I'm reading seriously, the one I'm using as a kind of tuning fork, the one I need to sound the tone I will take up in the fiction I'm writing at the time.  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. 

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.

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

- Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon is an acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction.  She has won an O. Henry Award, the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writers' Award, an Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993.  Gordon resides in New York where she is a Professor of English at Barnard College.  Gordon's best known works include: Spending, The Shadow Man, The Company of Womenand The Rest of Life.





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