Author On the Bookcase: Maile Chapman
HAS PENMAN'S SHIP SAILED?
MAILE CHAPMAN, author of Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, discusses the importance of writing—pen-to-paper— in her life and career as an author.
I come from a family of frequent letter writers, so from very young I looked forward to learning “penmanship” in third grade. For me writing that way was a sign of adulthood, something my parents, grandparents, step-parents, and aunts all did. Now, though, American schools are deciding whether to drop the cursive requirement, leaving the choice up to individual teachers. I see the logic of the argument – typing is the more efficient of the two forms – but I don’t think efficiency is the end-all, be-all. I just can’t imagine growing up and getting an education without being taught how to write. Keyboarding is a necessary skill, absolutely, but it’s a different form of expression than writing by hand and the two are not interchangeable. Handwriting is idiosyncratic, whereas typing is standardized – it’s meant to be somewhat less personal, the better to participate in a common system for communicating quickly and easily. Handwriting is messy, and typing is legible. But you know how emails can be easy to misread or misinterpret, because there’s no emotional inflection? I rarely feel that way about anything written by hand.
The detours my brain takes when I sit down to write fiction wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t learned how to write first with a pen in my hand, at a slow, laborious pace that left evidence of false starts strewn all around, undeletable. I’m biased, of course, because I still write fiction that way, including my novel, and I’m superstitious and protective about my work habits. But if I couldn’t compose inefficient first drafts on paper, slowly and with tons of mistakes, I don’t think I could write fiction at all, because of self-induced pressure to produce something good too early in the process.
Many writers set down first drafts on the computer, and I wish that I could do that, too, because I’m often hampered by my methods – working on more than one project in a bunch of different notebooks makes it hard, if not impossible, to stay organized. I wish I could at least search my hoard for key words; sometimes things I’ve written disappear before I have a chance to transcribe them onto the computer and I never find them again, which is infuriating and disheartening. But as soon as I put words on a screen it gives them a certain formality and if that comes too early I seem to choke. Writing in cursive feels less formal – there’s no illusion that my inky working pages constitute a finished piece. I can write pages and pages of stupid stuff with a pen and not feel like I’m a bad writer, whereas typing the voluminous garbage I personally have to get through before I hit anything useful would make me feel acutely self-conscious, and overwhelmed by the amount of work still clearly looming ahead. It seems I can’t compose the bulk of anything new while I’m typing because I can’t turn off my internal editor and critic.
But then naturally those are the voices I need when it’s time to impose order. Typing pages of cursive into a single document can suddenly make me feel like I’m switching gears and getting somewhere. Once those pages are available on the screen it’s amazingly liberating to be able to move paragraphs and cut sections and then put them back in, seeing the whole as well as the pieces… of course I’m stating the ultra-obvious here. My point is that I’m glad I can do both, because making an explicit distinction between generating new material and then editing it afterwards is what works for me. Starting with a pen on paper makes that distinction palpable, and helps me avoid too much of the early self-criticism that makes it so hard to try to write anything new – I’m safe because I know I’ll clean it up later, on the computer. That kind of healthy self-indulgence is what I need most when I start reaming out the mental garbage in search of something worth pursuing.
What do you think? Is pen-to-paper old and out dated or is it still a relevant institution? Is society too dependent on technology and word processing programs? Where do you think penmanship stands today after reading Maile Chapman’s take on it?
Maile Chapman's stories have appeared in A Public Space, Literary Review, the Mississippi Review, and Post Road. She earned her MFA from Syracuse University and is currently a Schaeffer Fellow in Fiction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.