January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.
2 thoughts on “Writer’s Are Often At A Loss For Words”
John….so good to hear from you once again! As a recent entrant into the world of blogging, and having read many of your posts, I can already appreciate your predicament of being at a loss for words, despite the fact that you have written so many intriguing essays up to this point.
My own blog, which is intended to focus on the the men and women who so crucially factored into the birth of our glorious nation, is informed by the fact that, in the mid-to-late 18th century, there was an explosion of the written word. In that era, the key essayists had no other way to communicate their thoughts and arguments except by writing them down on paper, utilizing the same quill and pen you have used so recently. Once written, those documents would have to first be mailed via courier on horseback or carried by individuals on wind-powered sailing ships across the world’s oceans and delivered sometimes weeks or even months after they were written.
Once they arrived at their destination, not guaranteed by any means, they were often distributed by public readings out loud to crowds eager to hear the latest news or decisions that had been made. In fact, the Declaration of Independence of 1776 itself was communicated to the people of the United States in this same manner. Almost 100 years later, President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his two Inaugural addresses and the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates were delivered in person among large crowds, but more broadly disseminated by the written word.
What a stark contrast with how we communicate today! The virtually instantaneous transmission of thoughts and ideas and arguments, from essentially anyone anywhere, has some serious drawbacks for our world sanity. I like the idea that someone such as yourself, who gives time and effort to thinking before writing, might use quill and pen to ensure cogent, logical analysis in your communications.
Den…Thanks for your thoughtful comment. One of the reasons I can most appreciate the tremendous efforts of our 18th century writers, aside from the very real challenges to communicating news to the public who were eager to hear the latest news as you pointed out, stems from the degree of difficulty in just PRODUCING the written words that would travel across land and sea. We take so much for granted these days, and with all of the technological innovations in communicating in the 21st century, writing with a pen is itself in danger of becoming obsolete. It is my feeling that this would be a tremendous loss for our future generations, as many of the most cherished and significant events of even my own modern life are recorded in the many handwritten letters that I received and within the handwritten pages I produced over the years. Young people today are quickly losing this option of preserving cherished remembrances from loved ones and dear friends. Writing with a pen and ink on paper, even with just a modern ballpoint or gel pen, forces the writer to consider their words at a pace that simply isn’t taken these days with texting, tweeting, and messaging online. It’s difficult to describe to young people the thrill of receiving a letter in the mail from a cherished loved one who is far away, or from a dear friend who moved away but still wants to stay in touch. Many of the handwritten journals that I have accumulated over twenty years of journaling give me a window into my thoughts over the years–thoughts which were carefully considered and diligently deliberated by me. Holding in my hands, a handwritten letter from my mother which she wrote to me as a young man, is a gift for which no substitute could possibly be found.
One of my favorite early American stories about writing comes in the form of a brief article by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation called, “Drudging to the Writing Table,” in which Jefferson laments the astonishing volume of writing which he felt compelled to do as a most sought after expert in a number of different subject areas:
After his morning routine, Thomas Jefferson settled into a lengthy period of letter-writing: “From sun-rise to one or two o’clock,” he noted, “I am drudging at the writing table.” Jefferson wrote almost
20,000 letters in his lifetime, among them, scholarly musings to colleagues, and affectionate notes to his family, and civil responses to admirers. He wrote John Adams that he suffered “under the persecution of
letters,” calculating that he received 1,267 letters in the year 1820, “many of them requiring answers of elaborate research, and all to be answered with due attention and consideration.”
His surviving letters give insight into Jefferson’s vast interests and reveal much about his personality. He was interested in every branch of applied science and math, but letters were always waiting, and Jefferson returned to what he called “pen and ink work” more than he would have preferred.
© Copyright 1996, by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Let’s hope that we eventually find a way to preserve the handwritten “pen and ink work,” that helped establish “our glorious nation.” Anyone interested in the stories about early American History should stop by and have a visit at Denny’s America here on WordPress.com