Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writersby Harry Bruce
At public events readers always ask writers how they write. The process fascinates them. Now they have a very witty book that ranges around the world and throughout history to answer their questions. All the great writers are here — Dickens,
A witty round-up of writers' habits that includes all the big names, such as Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hemingway
At public events readers always ask writers how they write. The process fascinates them. Now they have a very witty book that ranges around the world and throughout history to answer their questions. All the great writers are here — Dickens, dashing off his work; Henry James dictating it; Flaubert shouting each word aloud in the garden; Hemingway at work in cafés with his pencil. But pencil or pen, trusty typewriter or computer, they all have their advocates. Not to mention the writers who can only keep the words flowing by writing naked, or while walking or listening to music — and generally obeying the most bizarre superstitions.
On Shakespeare’s works: “Fantastic. And it was all done with a feather!” — Sam Goldwyn
“I write nude, seated on a thick towel, and perhaps with a second towel around me.” — Paul West
“I’ve never heard of anyone getting plumber’s block, or traffic cop’s block.” — Allan Gurganus
“I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” — Brendan Behan
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
"Speaking to the Eyes": Beginnings
In the early 1840s, William Bacon Stevens, a young historian and devout Christian in Savannah, Georgia, beheld with awe a manuscript roughly a thousand years old. A ninth-century copy of Moralia in Job, which Pope Gregory i wrote in the sixth century, it was the oldest of the exceedingly rare treasures that plantation and slave owner Alexander Augustus Smets kept among the five thousand books in the library at his brick mansion in the city.
Worms had chewed the volume's thick covers, but the brass clasps and studs were in good shape. The double columns of Latin words on vellum pages were remarkably neat and highly legible, and Stevens marvelled "that the hand which traced those lines in all their beauty has a thousand years since moulded into dust – that the mighty waves of more than thirty generations have risen, rolled onward, and died upon the writer's grave. . . . The little characters inscribed on that parchment . . . have enclosed for ten centuries, the thoughts of the illustrious dead, speaking to the eye now, as [they] did a thousand years back, the same sentiments of piety and truth; while the name, the habitation, the tomb even of the writer have, for ages, been buried in oblivion! How wonderful is the power of letters! We enjoy hourly their benefit, we seldom reflect upon their worth. Their origin is lost in the remotest antiquity. . . ."
Stevens then presented verse by a writer he identified only as Breboeuf:
Whence did the wond'rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH, and speaking to the eyes?
That we, by tracing magic lines, are taught
How both to colour and embody THOUGHT?
In 1803, thirty-seven years before Stevens thus praised the miracle of handwriting – already so routine among the literate they thought about it little more than about breathing – Thomas Astle, keeper of records in the Tower of London, declared, "The noblest acquisition of mankind is speech, and the most useful art is writing. The first eminently distinguishes man from the brute creation; the second from uncivilized savages." After quoting those same lines by "Monsieur Breboeuf," Astle took a 240-page stab at explaining whence the mystic art arose and how it was that, over thousands of years, it had reached a state of such excellence that, with goose quill in hand and inkpot at the ready, he could race his linked and slanted letters across paper made from boiled shreds of rags. That paper, he enthused, "surpasses all other materials for ease and convenience of writing upon."
But it was upon stone that humans left the earliest known evidence of their compulsion to express themselves – and to do so in ways that would one day speak to the eyes of those who walked on the moon, performed open-heart surgery, defeated computers at chess, and gossiped on cellphones. On shadowy walls roughly thirty thousand years ago, cave dwellers engraved and painted graceful images of lions, bears, bulls, bison, wild oxen, reindeer, horses, and fuzzy rhinoceroses. No one knows for sure why they did this, but in 1970 handwriting historian Alfred J. Fairbank declared, "The beginnings of writing are in simple pictures. . . . Picture-writing was used to help memory or identify possessions or to make records of transactions, but its link with language was the key to civilization."
For the Indians, Mexicans, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Etruscans, and, indeed, virtually all the ancient civilizations, hieroglyphic scripts – in which pictures of people, animals, birds, tools, and other familiar things each stood for the sound of a word or syllable – were the pioneers of written language. Roughly nine thousand years ago, when the population of the world was no more than five million, the Middle East and Far East knew so little about each other they might as well have been in different galaxies. Yet the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates basins and those of the Peiligang culture in what is now Henan province in northern China were both raising farm animals, growing grain, making pottery, and relying on their own systems of visual symbols, usually carved or scratched into hard surfaces, to record and convey information they could not trust their memories to preserve.
Among the human remains in twenty-four of the graves that archaeologists recently unearthed in Henan were tortoise shells that bore sixteen different inscriptions. These are anywhere from 8,200 to 8,600 years old. Since they include markings that resemble the characters of "eye," "sun," "day," "window," and numbers in certain Chinese writing of more than five thousand years later, some scholars see them as proof that, eons before any other civilization, the Chinese invented writing. Others argue that the inscriptions are little more than a bunch of prehistoric pictures.
No expert will ever nail down, to every other expert's satisfaction, exactly when the sophistication of real writing emerged from the crudeness of prehistoric proto-writing, but Encyclopedia Britannica identifies T'sang Chieh as the "legendary inventor" of Chinese writing, and it was in the mid-2500s BC that he served the Yellow Emperor as official recorder.
"At night, hearing the ghosts wail for the creation of writing, T'sang Chieh looked up with his four eyes at the pointed rays of the star Wen Chang, Lord of Literature," a Chinese historian wrote in AD 847. "Inspired, T'sang Chieh looked down to see the footprints of the birds and animals. He watched the shadows cast by trees and vegetation. . . . Observing the forms of nature, T'sang Chieh copied them by scratching onto sticks of smoothed bamboo. These were the first Chinese pictograms."
And Lo! There Came unto the World the Alphabet
"Sumerian was the first language to be written, and it is largely monosyllabic," Fairbank said. "The writing began as simple pictures and some can be traced to about 3100 bc." Sumer lay in that small "cradle of civilization" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, and by 2500 BC its ingenious people had a complete system of writing that contained as many as a thousand symbols. Nowhere, however, were hieroglyphics more beautiful and enduring than in Egypt. More than five thousand years ago, Egyptian priests used them to carve sacred inscriptions into stone and to paint them on temple walls. In hieratic writing, ashortening of hieroglyphics, scribes joined letter to letter. Around 1000 BC there finally emerged in Egypt the demotic script, a more colloquial and popular descendant of hieroglyphics.
But how wonderful is the power of letters! The alphabet, in which each letter represents its own sound within a word, remains one of civilization's foremost innovations. Its origins, however, are obscure. Experts on the ancient world long believed that, between 1730 and 1580 bc, the first alphabet arose among Semitic peoples in their homelands in Syria and Palestine. Egyptologists, however, recently discovered evidence that, centuries earlier, Semites who lived deep inside Egypt were already using an ancestor of our alphabet. West of the Nile, on the track of a desert road that soldiers, merchants, and traders used some 3,800 years ago, the scholars found inscriptions carved into limestone cliffs. The writing was Semitic, with Egyptian influences – and it was alphabetic.
Masters of hieroglyphics were professionals who had to know hundreds of pictographs; the alphabet, with fewer than thirty symbols, emerged as a kind of shorthand. The discoveries at the cliffs, the New York Times reported in 1999, supported "the idea of the alphabet as an invention by workaday people that simplified and democratized writing, freeing it from the elite hands of official scribes." Thus, alphabetic writing was "revolutionary in a sense comparable to the invention of the printing press much later." While becoming the mightiest trading and naval power on the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians improved the alphabet, and roughly three thousand years ago passed it on to the Greeks. The Greeks further improved it, and then the idea of the alphabet spread to the Etruscans, the Romans, and throughout Western culture.
First Baked Muck, Then Papyrus
Writing was so important to the ancients that they painted, inked, scratched, or engraved it on stone, bronze, brass, bark, linen, silk, camel bones, tortoise shells, pottery shards, limestone fragments, bare wood, plaster-coated and wax-coated wood, parchment, and vellum. The Sumerians wrote on clots of muck and baked them in the Middle Eastern sun. Much of their land was marshy, flood-prone, irrigated, and rich in alluvial silt. Pressing the triangularshaped cut end of a reed into a cushion of damp clay, the writer produced wedge-shaped strokes in patterns that added up to strings of words. Later, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians also wrote in cuneiform(from the Latin cuneus, for wedge), and thousands of their inscribed tablets remain legible to this day.
The earliest surviving cuneiform writings of the Sumerians are financial accounts and supply lists of priests. Among other ancient peoples as well, the first known writings were not imaginative. They were official, ceremonial, and religious, or simply asserted ownership, preserved legal settlements, and recorded transactions. Around 2000 bc, however, certain scribes offered a series of myths and poems that evolved into The Epic of Gilgamesh. In all likelihood, Gilgamesh was a real king who, between 2700 and 2500 BC, ruled from one of the world's first walled cities, Uruk. Over centuries, as Sumerian, Hittite, Babylonian, and Assyrian scribes immortalized him on clay, he emerged in a long epic poem as a demigod with superhuman powers. He kills a gigantic ogre, crosses the Waters of Death, overcomes monstrous hardships, tangles with gods and goddesses, agonizes over the death of his closest friend, seeks wisdom and life everlasting and, like lesser Sumerians, comes to know grief, joy, failure, and triumph. He is a Mesopotamian precursor of Hercules.
The Epic of Gilgamesh may well be the oldest written story on Earth, and we owe its best-preserved and most complete rendition to the first author whose name has come down to us. He was Sinliqe-unninni. He lived in Babylonia between 1300 and 1000 BC and wrote the "standard" version of the poem on twelve clay tablets. We know next to nothing about him, but can we possibly doubt his dedication to writing? One English translation of his Gilgamesh in Babylonian runs to more than seventeen thousand words. Yet Sin-liqe-unninni set out his entire epic by poking reeds into clumps of mud. His Muse must have immunized him against both writer's block and writer's cramp.
By his time, Egyptians had been making papyrus for roughly 2,500 years. A tall reed that grew abundantly in the shallower waters of the Nile and its delta, Cyperus papyrus was a godsend to the locals, and perhaps to the baby Moses. Some believe that it was this plant, not bulrushes, that his mother used to make the floating cradle in which she hid him at the edge of the Nile. The Egyptians turned some parts of Cyperus papyrus into food and fuel, and others into utensils, cloth, rope, sandals, skiffs, and garlands for shrines. But nothing the people of the Nile made from the hugely plentiful reed was anywhere near as important as papyrus. Upon this light, flexible ancestor of paper, scribes wrote quickly with ink they made from soot, gum and water, and pens they fashioned from hollow reeds. For a thousand years or more, papyrus was the most popular writing surface not only among the Egyptians, but among the Greeks, Romans, and other peoples who imported it from them.
The very pains the Egyptians took to manufacture it proved how indispensable it was. Papyrus makers split the stem, extracted strips of pith, laid them side by side to form a layer, placed shorter pieces over them at right angles, bonded the two crossways layers with paste or muddy Nile water, and then pressed, pounded, and hammered the sheet. Finally, they dried it in the sun. Using ivory, shells, or pumice, workers then polished one side until it was fit to receive writing. For purposes of shipment and book-length compositions, they pasted sheets end to end until they had a long strip, which they rolled up on wooden rods. Some rolls were 150 feet long, but most of those bound for Greece and Rome were thirty to thirty-five feet by nine or ten inches. They were tough enough to survive centuries of rolling and unrolling. Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder wrote, "Well-made papyrus can be more supple than linen."
Its production was no mere cottage industry. Egyptians produced it not in small workshops but in factories. They exported it to Mesopotamia – the Assyrians called it "the reed of Egypt" – and ports all around the Mediterranean. Rome had several papyrus dealers, and at stationery shops buyers had their choice of half a dozen grades and widths. They used papyrus not only for works of literature, but for correspondence, everyday business, and legal documents. In Rome, the government owned a cavernous warehouse for the papyrus its bureaucrats used in their offices. During the reign of Tiberius (ad 14 to 37), the failure of the papyrus crop made the "paper" so hard to get that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), "there was a danger of the ordinary business of life being deranged." Two thousand years later, it would take power failures to cause that sort of crisis.
Estimates of the holdings in antiquity's biggest library and first research institute indicate how enormous the production of papyrus was. Built early in the third century bc, during the Hellenistic era that began in Egypt after the vast conquests of Alexander the Great, the Royal Library in Alexandria was still in its infancy when a bibliographical survey revealed it housed ninety thousand rolls. In the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, astronomer Carl Sagan said that "the intellectual venture that has led us into space" actually began at this very library, and he claimed it housed nearly a million scrolls. That was an exaggeration but even if the total was only half that, and the average length of the scrolls was thirty-five feet, the papyrus there was more than 3,300 miles long. And that was only in Alexandria. Heaven only knows how many more miles of papyrus documents sat in the dusty libraries of ancient Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia.
On Papyrus, the New Testament. And Sex Manuals
With due respect to Gilgamesh, it was papyrus, not clay, that allowed the arrival of literature in the world; encouraged its blossoming during what Edgar Allan Poe called "the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome"; and preserved it for the printing presses and websites of inconceivably distant times. Stone and metal were fine for inscribing laws, edicts, commandments, and dedications, but not for writing literature. British Egyptologist and author Amelia Edwards (1831–1892) once challenged her readers to imagine Sappho, Martial and Horace "laboriously scratching" their poems on bronze or stone. "How the perfume of the roses and the sting of the epigrams and the aroma of the Sabine wine would have evaporated under such a process!" Thus it was on papyrus that not only the New Testament survived, but also the writings of Homer, Aesop, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripides, Marcus Aurelius, Tacitus, Cicero, Lucretius, and dozens of others. It was on papyrus that The Aeneid by Virgil (70–19 BC) travelled, in his own lifetime, all the way to Britain.
As recently as 2005, researchers at Oxford University employed a new technology called "multi-spectral imaging" to read papyrus fragments that had been illegible for more than two thousand years. Bills, wills, horoscopes, tax assessments, and private letters were among the suddenly readable documents, but so were works by giants of Greek classical literature. Dirk Obbink, director of the research, said the hoard contained "a complete slice of life – everything from Sophocles and Homer to sex manuals and steamy novels."
Even before the Greeks and Romans, however, the Egyptians had an extensive literature of their own, and in the Victorian era Amelia Edwards wrote about it as though it were the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World:
The Egyptians were the first people . . . who wrote books, and read books; who possessed books, and loved them. And their literature, which grew, and flourished and decayed with the language in which it was written, was of the most varied character, scientific, secular, and religious. It comprised moral and educational treatises; state papers; works on geometry, medicine, astronomy, and magic; travels, tales, fables, heroic poems, love-songs, and essays in the form of letters; hymns, dirges, rituals; and last, not least, that extraordinary collection of prayers, invocations, and religious formulae known as The Book of the Dead. Some of these writings are older than the pyramids; some are as recent as the time when Egypt had fallen from her high estate and become a Roman province. Between these two extremes lie more than 5000 years. Of this immense body of literature we possess only the scattered wrecks – mere "flotsam and jetsam," left stranded on the shores of Time.
Since papyrus was expensive, the Romans also wrote on wax. They spread green or black beeswax on white sheets of wood and inscribed words on it with a stylus. This needle-like tool had a blunt end for corrections. Writers erased outdated inscriptions simply by smoothing the wax and using it again and again. Handy for casual jottings, keeping accounts, dashing off unimportant letters, and working on poetry or prose until it was good enough to transfer to papyrus, the tablets were the notebooks of the Roman Empire.
Like nineteenth-century schoolchildren with portable slates, Roman schoolboys wrote exercises on these waxed boards. Their teachers often tied tablets together to form primitive books, at least one of which grew dangerously heavy. "For in Plautus," Thomas Astle wrote in his 1803 history of handwriting, "a school boy of seven years old is represented breaking his master's head with a table book." The iron stylus could also be lethal. The historian Suetonius claimed that the sadistic despot Caligula (AD 14 to 41) incited a Roman mob to murder a senator with their stylli. Moreover, Astle continued, "Prudontius very emphatically describes the tortures which Cassianus [a schoolteacher] was put to by his scholars, who killed him with their pugillares (table books) and styles." The Romans eventually thought it best to outlaw iron stylli in favour of those fashioned from ivory or bone, a ruling that every teacher in the empire doubtless applauded.
From China to England over Fifteen Centuries: Paper Mills
The paper that the world now uses owes its origin to China. Paper first appeared there at least a century before the birth of Christ but, according to the British manufacturer of fine art paper, Inveresk plc, "traditional Chinese records give the credit for its development to one T'sai Lun (about 105 ad), who was even deified as the god of papermakers." He taught them to pound and grind bark, rags, and fishing nets, and to mix the result with water to make a mushy pulp. With fine mesh screens, they turned the stuff into sheets of intertwined fibre, which they then pressed and dried. "This method of papermaking," the Ontario Science Centre asserts, "has not changed in 2,000 years."
China knew it was on to a good thing. It foiled whatever industrial espionage foreigners attempted and kept its papermaking formula a secret, even from nearby Korea and Japan, for at least five centuries. In 751, however, Arab forces defeated a Chinese army in a historic battle near the Taras River in central Asia, and among the prisoners they took were papermakers. The Arabs promptly forced them into paper production in Samarkand, and by 794 Baghdad, too, had a mill. Paper slowly spread westward in the Arab world, to Damascus, Egypt, Morocco, and, in the 1150s, Spain. Still later, mills emerged throughout continental Europe and finally arrived in England in the late 1400s. That was a good fifteen hundred years after the first sheets of paper, somewhere in China, began to accept ink.
The quality of early Chinese paper, Inveresk reports, was superb. Indeed, it was "comparable even with that of handmade rag paper today." Chinese calligraphers have never been able to settle for anything less. Choosing from quivers of assorted brushes, they stroke ink onto this fine paper to express meanings that are literary, to be sure, but also visual. How they write is every bit as important as what they write and, unlike handwriting in the Western world, Oriental calligraphy is itself an art. Museums exhibit it as they do paintings, and the Chinese still treasure it as more valuable than paintings and sculpture. As a means of self-expression, they rank it alongside poetry. To connoisseurs of this Oriental art, the unique style of each calligrapher's creation reflects his character, emotions, culture, and appreciation of beauty. It thus reveals to the reader-viewer the very soul of the artist.
Chinese calligraphers preferred rabbit-hair brushes for small characters and sheep-hair brushes for bolder strokes, but also used ones made from the hairs of goats, weasels, wolves, tigers, and gorillas, and even the whiskers of mice. The ink consisted of lampblack baked with a glutinous substance, and the finest grades were delicately perfumed. Perhaps the scent made it easier for the artist to convey not only the language of thought but what calligraphy authority Jean Long calls "the artistic beauty of the thought."
No Paper? Try Sheepskin
In the Roman Empire during the fourth century ad, slaughtered animals overtook aquatic plants as the raw material for the most popular forebear of writing paper. Made from the skins of sheep or goats, parchment was a bit coarse. But vellum – the treated skins of kids, lambs, and calves – was thin, firm, crisp, smooth, and glossy. Newly born or stillborn animals provided vellum's crème de la crème. The earliest users of the best vellum undoubtedly appreciated its beautiful writing surface, but probably failed to grasp how amazingly durable it was. While rot has destroyed all the ancient papyrus documents except those found in the dry heat of Egypt, thousands of vellum documents have survived the march of centuries. Vellum had a further advantage; it was reusable. Scribes could erase writings from it and use it repeatedly. That was important. The stuff was so expensive that, for routine work, they wrote in tiny letters.
"The ordinary modern process of preparing the skins," Encyclopedia Britannica reported in 1910, "is by washing, liming, unhairing, scraping, washing a second time, stretching evenly on a frame, scraping a second time and paring down inequalities, dusting with sifted chalk and rubbing with pumice. Similar methods . . . must have been employed from the first."
The finished product, however, more than justified the painstaking labour. While the several rolls of papyrus required to contain a whole book were awkward to handle and tricky to keep in proper order, just one volume of parchment or vellum pages could hold all of Homer, Virgil, or the Bible. As early as the first century ad, the expert writer of epigrams in Latin, Martial, touted the wonderful advantages of the ancient manuscript in book form that we now call the codex. "You want to take my poems wherever you go, as companions, say, on a trip to some distant land?" he wrote. "Buy this. It's packed tight into parchment pages, so leave your rolls at home, for this takes just one hand!"
Thus, the vellum codex ousted papyrus and dominated publishing right down to the arrival of paper mills and printing presses at the end of the Middle Ages. (While the history of printing is undoubtedly fascinating, this book deals only with the tools, materials, and habits that have helped creative writers fill the blank pages that confronted them.)
After barbarian hordes conquered the Roman Empire and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, deeply religious men holed up for centuries in a chain of castle-like monasteries that stretched across the continent. Working in silence and, for fear of fire, with no light but the sun's, they preserved on vellum not only the Bible and other supreme texts of Christendom, but the works of medicine, science, history, philosophy, and literature that have travelled all the way from classical Greece and Rome to readers in the twenty-first century. An article at booksellerworld.com reports that the pages for one copy of the Bible required the slaughter of 210 to 225 sheep and "from the first fifty years of the ninth century we have records of forty-six large Bibles and eighteen Gospels produced at Tours. A sure cure for insomnia."
If making vellum was troublesome, making ink was doubly so. In the eleventh century, an Italian monk named Theophilus began to make what Samuel Johnson, some seven centuries later, would call "the black liquor with which men write," by cutting hawthorn branches before they produced blossoms or leaves in the early spring. He laid them in a shady spot for up to eight weeks until they dried out, pounded them with mallets, and peeled off their bark. He put the bark in barrels of water for eight days to allow the water to draw off the sap, then he dumped the water into a big cauldron, heated it over a fire, threw in more bark, boiled the liquid down to a third of its original volume, transferred it to a smaller container, and heated it again until it turned black and began to thicken. "When you see it become thick," he concluded, "add a third part of pure wine, put it in two or three new pots and continue to heat it until you see that it develops a kind of skin at the top."
Around the time that Theophilus wrote his ink-making instructions, an unknown writer, in scrupulously neat Old English, transcribed the epic saga Beowulf. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries and possibly composed as early as the seventh, the poem describes in eloquent and gory detail the struggles of the Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, against the bloodthirsty, man-eating monster, Grendel; the horrifying, revenge-seeking mother of the felled Grendel; and a dragon. The sole surviving manuscript sits in the British Library. Some of the poem's admirers now call it "England's national epic." Yet it would never have come to light if it weren't for the anonymous scribe who, a thousand years ago, copied all of its 3,183 lines onto the skins of animals – with the feathers of a bird. For centuries, the quill pen had been the writing instrument of choice throughout Europe, and it would remain so for centuries to come.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Harry Bruce, a Halifax-based author of many books, has been gathering these stories all of his life.
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