Professor Wu's Rulebook

Pen as negotiator between creative brain and creative body – famous writers on the importance of handwriting

cursive handwriting

There is something about handwriting that is thoroughly human. Few things exercise – and exorcise – the often stubborn collaboration between mind and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. Pens become the corporeal transmitter of creative flow for writers, just as the paintbrush is for the artist; the camera lens for the photographer.

Yet in our digital world, we so often find ourselves only using the keyboards of our desktop computers, our laptops – or even our minimalist typewriters (if you swing that way). With such tools available to us, it can be tempting to forget the power of the pen and the importance of handwriting. But don’t just take our word for it! Here we’ve collected just a few thoughts of famous writers on the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship…

John Steinbeck

In a series of disarming observations, Steinbeck captures the curious role of the pen as negotiator between brain and body in Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath. This remarkable volume gives us a glimpse how the great writer used a diary as a tool of discipline when he embarked upon the most intense writing experience of his life – the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize.


Here, we see how the writer falls almost completely in love with his pen. In July, he notes:

“This has been a good pen to me so far. Never had such a good one.”

And by mid-August:

“What a wonderful pen this is. It has and is giving me perfect service – never stops flowing for a second and never overflows and blots a word.”

A year later, having dabbled with using a new pen (flirting with a younger model), he returns to his calligraphic home:

“There is no doubt that this fine old pen is better and smoother than the newer one. I think I’ll keep with this good old pen. I’ve done a lot of writing with it. I only hope it holds up.”

As his relationship with the pen develops, we see Steinbeck define fulfilment in a way we hope other aspiring writers take heart from. For it is not in writing for readers or writing for publishers or writing for commercial success that Steinbeck seeks happiness – but in the profound private fulfilment of simply writing:

“The perfect pen and the perfect paper and me working on work that pleases me and has no note for the critics.”

Or, more intensely:

“Oh! Lord, how good this paper feels under this pen. I can sit here writing and the words slipping out like grapes out of their skins and I feel so good doing it.”

Then perhaps Steinbeck captures in a single exquisite passage the almost mystical quality of writing by hand – the strange way the pen can become a projection of the creative psyche, channeling deepest longings and twirling patterns of thought as the hand drafts what might be the meaning of life itself:

“Here is a strange thing — almost like a secret. You start out putting words down and there are three things — you, the pen, and the page. Then gradually the three things merge until they are all one and you feel about the page as you do about your arm. Only you love it more than you love your arm. Some day I will be all alone and lonely — either dead and alone or alive and alone, and what will I do then? Then those things I have now and do not know will become so desperately dear that they will be aches. Then what? There will be no way to cure those aches, no way. In that coldness nothing will come. Things are leaving me now because they came too fast — too many of them — and being unable to receive them I threw them out and soon they will not come any more. This process is called life or living or any one of a number of things like that. In other words these are the soundless words, the words that have no being at all. The grey birds of loneliness hopping about. I thought that there might be a time or a condition different from that. But I know now — there isn’t any other way. “

Edgar Allan Poe

One of the masters of mystery and the macabre, Poe provides us with much reason to lament the rise of Kindels and e-readers, as he explains one of the key joys of a book is being able to write – in the margins – one’s thoughts as one reads, as though in an intimate, entwined conversation between yourself and the writer.


‘Marginalia’ are, to Poe, a playground for ideas and intellectual discourse – where one’s personal handwriting exhibits the mind at its most uninhibited. Certainly, a vital prerequisite for writers often afraid to write out one’s thoughts for fear of finding them flippant or trivial, as Poe notes:

“Marginalia are deliberately penciled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburden itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial — still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonment — without conceit. . . .”

And Poe does not forget to point out that handwriting is marginalia’s most necessary vehicle. He asserts that personal script, and handwriting itself, create a window into one’s core attributes of character:

“I am far more than half serious in all that I have ever said about manuscript, as affording indication of character.

The general proposition is unquestionable — that the mental qualities will have a tendency to impress the MS [manuscript]. […]given a man’s purely physical biography, with his MS., and the moral biography may be deduced.

The actual practical extent to which these ideas are applicable, is not sufficiently understood.”

Mary Gordon

In her wonderful essay Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen to Just Any Paper, Gordon celebrates the glorious, grounding physicality of penmanship:


“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.”

Indeed, she posits that the tool itself is in itself a gateway – and it may transport us to a different sense of self:

“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.”

And, in copying out – by hand – the writing of poets, authors, musicians, Gordon finds this can create for her what all writers seek – inspiration:

“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.”

Perhaps this inspiration drives from the special physicality of handwriting, which Gordon notes can prove rather pleasurable:

“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.”

And then, Gordon (and this article) concludes with the following thought – a passing warning to the pitfalls of modern technology:

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


    1. Thanks for the great comment, Madeline! Absolutely agree with you that there is something in writing by hand that feels more real and sensory than simply typing out words on a computer.


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