I’m left-handed and writing with a pen almost always ends up being a messy affair. In the West, we write left to right, making my left hand drag the ink along and smudge the page. Even with a pencil, my hand tends to cramp as a left-handed person must write inward across the page. I’ve often envied right-handed people who can gracefully write outward across the page like a violinist with his bow extended to caress the sweet high and low notes.
The computer is an equal-opportunity instrument, though I imagine if I researched the origins of the QWERTY keyboard, I’d find it was designed not only for the slowness of mechanical typewriters, but also for the prominent right-handed population. Even though I prefer writing my first draft in longhand, I often start on the computer.
That’s the kind of mundane detail Harry Bruce describes in Page Fright: Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers. Bruce chronicles writers’ habits from the era of quill pens, fountain pens, long-hand writing with pencils or pen, to modern-day writers who use the typewriter or computer.
In Page Fright we learn that some writers love strange rituals: For example, one wrote with rotten apples in a desk drawer, another lay in an open coffin before writing. One writer fed a scorpion in a jar before starting to write. But that’s as bizarre as it gets. The rest is pretty routine: Some writers like their surroundings tidy, some messy; some like noise or quiet; some like their surroundings sparse, some write alone, while others like activity such as family members or the noise of patrons in a cafes. Some writers like to talk about their work, while others don’t. Some writers compose thousands of words a day, while others like Flaubert wrote painstakingly slow averaging about seven words an hour.
Some writers get dressed each day and go out to an office-type space to write, while others slum it and write in their pyjamas. Some use napkins in cafes to write on, and others prefer yellow legal pads. One writer wrote on his bed sheets and when the sheets were filled, he wrote on his thighs.
Voltaire wrote in bed using his naked mistress’ back as a desk. Mark Twain and Edith Wharton also wrote in bed — though not together. Page Fright really comes to life when Bruce describes the death of Orson Welles. At the age of 70, Welles was found dead in bed with his belly holding his typewriter.
Woody Allen writes in bed with a typewriter, whereas some writers, including Ben Franklin, Lewis Carroll and Winston Churchill, preferred to write standing up. Churchill wrote roughly 30 million words standing up or pacing while dictating to a stenographer, late through the night.
Philip Roth writes standing up about his characters’ horizontal activities, and Truman Capote called himself a completely horizontal author. He wrote his first and second drafts in long hand in bed, followed by his third, fourth and final drafts by typewriter. In bed.
Where Page Fright’s author Harry Bruce really disappoints is in his discussion of so-called mental illness and creativity. Bruce observes that many writers suffer from depression and other mood disorders and says, “surely there’s a connection between emotional turmoil and getting the right words down on paper — between mental illness and literary genius.”
Mmm, “surely” doesn’t sound very sure. And along comes Margaret Atwood to set the reader straight. She once told Joyce Carol Oates: “I certainly don’t feel that all art is a consequence of neurosis. I tend to see it as the opposite. … that art, the making or creating, is made in spite of the neurosis, is a triumph over it.”
Atwood’s biographer, Nathalie Cooke wrote, “By recasting art as a gesture of defiance rather than an articulation of surrender … Atwood consciously inverts the equation of art and suffering.”
Great writing seems to requires suffering — suffering usually caused by the absence of discipline. But discipline isn’t as sexy as suffering so writers rarely mention it. Is the undisciplined life worth living? Many writers say no and exit at their own convenience — via suicide. But let’s not confuse that sad choice with mental illness.
Page Fright is so carefully crafted by an author who loved the subject. The end result is a reference book and I imagine Page Fright will be used in those ubiquitous creative writing courses across North American. The index makes it easy to look up a favourite author, but lacks an index of activities or habits. A reader wouldn’t be able to find an author who’s drunk or sober or who writes naked.
- Page Fright reviewed by January Magazine
- Interview with Open Book Toronto
- Review by Morley Walker, Winnipeg Free Press
- Titles by Harry Bruce at Chapters