The Writing Life

Why the pen is mightier than the laptop.

(Nancy Palmieri/ap)
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By Joseph J. Ellis
Sunday, January 18, 2009; Page BW11

Out on what Gore Vidal once called "the book chat trail," I tend to get two unsolicited pieces of advice. The first is that I need to break free of my unrelenting focus on the American founding and move past that iconic aggregate often mythologized and capitalized as the Founding Fathers. The second is that I should also break out of my old-fashioned, indeed anachronistic, writing habits and discard my beloved collection of pens in favor of a laptop.

I have always been willing to listen to such advice. But thus far I have been unable to act on it. Instead, I have found myself mounting a spirited defense of my hopelessly stubborn prejudices, which have settled into my soul as cherished convictions.

Let's take my research and writing habits first. I have found, from experience, that I lack the skills and temperament to manage research assistants, so I do it all myself. Grinding my solitary way through the papers of, say, George Washington or John and Abigail Adams can become tedious, but the process forces me to decide what is central and what peripheral, what my own "take" should be. I also find little nuggets, or perhaps raisins in the dough of history, that no research assistant would deem worthy of mention, such as Washington's gentlemanly gesture toward Gen. Howe (whom he loathed) in arranging the return of Howe's dog, who got lost on the battlefield at Brandywine. Or the fact that Abigail wrote a letter to John between contractions of a stillborn child.

I write all my first drafts by hand -- not, however, with a quill pen -- because there seems to be some kind of symmetry between the muscular movement of my hand and the flow of ideas in my head. That symmetry gets destroyed by a keyboard, which becomes an alien intruder in the dialogue within myself. Lots of friends assure me that I could quickly make the transition to the laptop and enhance my productivity. I'm sure they're right, but my dirty little secret is that I want to prolong rather than shorten the writing process, since it is my only source of creative fulfillment.

On my apparent obsession with the founding era, I have developed what might be called the Willie Sutton defense. Willie, you'll recall, was a lovable bank robber in the 1950s who kept getting caught and sent to the slammer. Reporters eventually asked him why, given his inevitable incarceration, he kept robbing banks. Willie responded, "Because that's where they keep the money."

The founding era, so I believe, is the Fort Knox of American history. To shift the metaphor, the founding is the Big Bang in the American political universe, the explosive moment at the creation that continues to radiate its energies to our time and beyond.

As I see it, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office, he will be collecting on a promissory note that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 with the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." The conversations we are currently having about the significance of our first African American president began back then. If history is, as they say, an argument without end, the essential terms of our argument as a people and a nation were framed in the founding era, and we are still living within that framework.

So when I get up each morning, drink my coffee while reading the op-eds in the newspaper, then retreat to my study, I feel blessed to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear. My Jack Russell lies in the chair across from my desk, and my young Labradoodle lies somewhat nervously at my feet. (He still has not figured out the routine.) My cat sits in the windowsill, looking out at the falling leaves, affecting only disdain for the dogs.

The task for the day is to explain to a generation accustomed to cell phones and text messages how differently distance was experienced back then, when it took eight months to send a letter from Paris to Boston. The correspondence between Abigail and John only reinforces my stodgy habits of mind, for it confirms that we will never know as much about contemporary couples, who write far more e-mails than letters, as we know about the founding generation, who had only ink.

That's all I have, too. It is why I continue to think that the pen is not only mightier than the sword, but also mightier than the laptop. I put pen to paper feeling that I have rejoined an 18th-century conversation in an appropriately 18th-century way. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, if this be treason against technology, let the Google aficionados make the most of it. What I write, including this little piece, will be transcribed by others. But that, as they say, is another story, one that happens after the writing and thinking and struggling have already occurred. ยท

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