Notes on writing

Tools of the trade

Anthony Burgess

Without Qwert Yuiop’s willingness to submit to my punishing fingers I doubt if I could have sustained the profession of author. I know how to use a pen, but ever since I took my last written examination, the pen has always been for me a musical instrument: I still write orchestral scores with it but, associating it as I do with the shaping of notes and dynamic signals, I find it difficult to put it in the service of any written statement longer than allegro ma non troppo…

Qwert Yuiop in his traditional form…not only relates authorship to artisanship; he separates the written from the writer (a pen is too close to the heart) and brings him closer to that objectification which only the final printed copy can bestow. A writer does not pour out his heart or even talk on paper. He creates an artifact.

(Homage to Qwert Yuiop – Anthony Burgess)

In the extract above, Anthony Burgess is talking about his his trusty manual typewriter when he talks about ‘Qwert Yuiop’. Burgess was writing in 1986, before advent of the mass-produced, general-purpose personal computer, but a time when special-purpose word processors were beginning to edge out the typewriter. Burgess himself, as he says in the same essay, had just ordered his first such machine: ‘As I write, an IBM word processor with daisywheel sits malevolently waiting for me in a customs shed’. Burgess had thereby skipped a generation of technology by refusing to engage with electric typewriters. He had another seven years of life left and published four novels in that time, though, as far as I know, he never recorded his experiences with the malevolent IBM device.

Every writer has their tools of the trade, and for most of us now it’s a computer. The manual typewriter may have gone the way of the quill pen but there are still some who prefer to write longhand, especially for the first draft. Colm Tóibín was on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme a couple of weeks ago. Tóibín has a considerable reputation as a novelist but has also published verse. I was intrigued when he said that his novels are all written longhand but his verse is typed on a computer. This surprised me because it seemed to reverse the usual way of things.

Yet why should I think that? I suppose because I have an unexamined assumption that writing verse is more emotional, more intimate, less objective, than writing a novel or short story. Poems, it seems to me, come from the heart in a way that novels don’t. Of course, I’m generalizing — there are always exceptions. But a computer is surely designed for the heavy construction of novel-writing, not the delicate contriving of verse.

I’d guess that almost all commercial fiction writers, and most literary ones, apart from those of a certain age, take the Burgess approach rather the Tóibín one to novel writing — ‘a pen is too close to the heart’. Poets on the other hand should surely favour the pen. So I’d guess Tóibín is the exception in both spheres.

I’m old enough to remember when there was a certain sniffiness about word processing and fiction writing. I remember too once reading AS Byatt say that she could always tell when a book was written on a computer. She didn’t intend it as a compliment. But people once said the same about typewriters. For many traditionalists, the computer is an alienating technology, an inhuman intermediary between the mind and the page. It’s never felt like that to me. I couldn’t give up my laptop and I’d find it very difficult to produce a book with pen and paper. Still, people managed it once upon a time.

Leaving aside the pen, it astonishes me now that the old pulp writers (and indeed prolific writers of literary fiction like Burgess) hammered out their words and works on manual typewriters, unable easily to correct or amend or insert. What an incentive for a clean and coherent first draft that must have been. The tools make the writer, I suppose. The word processing program is an invitation to endless, and eventually self-defeating, rewriting and reworking. I think, more and more, that it encourages sloppiness of thought and expression. It’s so easy to type mediocre or even bad prose and tell yourself, ‘I’ll sort it out on the next draft’. Yes, I’m talking about myself here.

[Photograph of Antony Burgess at his typewriter © International Anthony Burgess Foundation.]