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Pencil-powered Prose: The Creative Benefits of Handwriting

Having more or less given up on handwriting, is it possible we’re leaving some of our most creative thoughts uncaptured?

Nancy Kaplan, director of the University of Baltimore’s School of Information Arts and Technologies, makes a compelling case to ditch your word processor—at least to kickoff your next writing project.

In a wonderful essay called “Blake’s Problem and Ours: Some Reflections on the Image and the Word” (Readerly/Writerly Texts 3.2, 1996; not available online), Kaplan got me thinking not just about how we compose, but also about how we assemble words, images, and even videos when we do try to present them in a single document. It’s all very fragmented, from conception to creation to publication. Which is exactly the “problem” Blake (as in 18th century romantic poet William) was trying to solve.

Blake wanted a printing method for his Marriage of Heaven and Hell series that did a better job of integrating pictures and prose than the moveable type-centric tools in use back then. He wanted to produce something that looked more like illuminated manuscripts, the beautiful pre-Gutenberg hand-drawn compositions, where picture and word are woven together on each page. The printing press and movable type more or less ended that unity. By the time Blake was working (often as an illustrator of other poets), the division imposed by the printing process between word and image was stark.

Words, of course, were made from movable type, and images were engraved on copper. “Any page design requiring both iconography and typography,” explains Kaplan, “required two separate pressings, and two different presses. Under those constraints, it was no longer possible to design pages fully integrating text and graphic. Graphic elements typically occupied a separate page altogether or were placed in a dedicated space above or below a unified block of text.”

That wouldn’t do for Blake, who was on a mission to change the way people perceived the world around them, and needed an art/word mashup to deliver his message. Specifically, he wanted to unify what he saw as a false distinction between poetry and painting’s talents. The former, according to conventional wisdom, was seen as a tool for depicting mental matters, while the latter’s job was to portray the seen, physical world. In the relief etching method he used—a time-consuming process that composited images and text on a single printing plate—Blake felt he was unifying the two modes of perception and thereby offering his audience, and future Jim Morrison fans, a new way of apprehending the world:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. (http://bit.ly/gywcj1)

In the 300 or so years following Blake’s time, and especially since the advent of desktop publishing and page layout program’s like InDesign, the reunification has only been a partial one. Yes, we have talented page designers (often working in the magazine or catalog industry) who merge pictures and prose. But for the most part writers write, artists illustrate, and their joint creative ventures tend to resemble what Blake was trying to avoid: blocks of text followed, separately, by images.

Why is this a problem?

Here’s where Kaplan’s essay offers some real chin stroking insight. Due to the tools we all use to compose (she was writing in 1996, but Microsoft Word reigned back then, too), a big chunk of our creative output is left unexpressed. The nuanced and freeform ideas that bubble in our minds get narrowly channeled into blocks of uniformly sized, unadorned text. She cites a study in which some students were asked to outline writing ideas using a word processor and others wrote by hand. The differences were subtle but compelling. The hand drawn notes were chock full of non-textual cues: underline markings (varying in size); circled phrases; arrows (curved and straight) connecting different thoughts and suggesting possible reorderings; and text angled and oscillating in size. Kaplan’s analysis is worth quoting at length:

For writers, the ambiguity, the contingency of any mark may indeed be its most salient characteristic. A single mark may thus carry a multiplicity of messages, economically signaling a range of recollections when the writer re-reads it. Emotional associations may be recalled by the vigor of a stroke or by the multiple lines underscoring a word, at the same time that the notation encodes a rational or intellectual intention to emphasize the point. In other words, composing (especially pre-drafting) may be highly idiosyncratic—requiring degrees of freedom not currently available in electronic systems for document manipulation.

As Catherine Smith points out, “human cognition engages, along with orderly, logical capabilities, other, more anarchistic elements—doubt, contradiction, intuition, recollection, forgetfulness, denial, tacit knowledge, partial awareness—the full mixed baggage of consciousness”. The mind may well represent such anarchy within itself in some system describable neither by words nor by images. And it is certainly true that no external representation of thought need correspond or mirror that mental representation exactly. Yet it seems at least plausible that the signs we use to communicate back to ourselves and to each other often require composite modes of representation, the dense and the articulate working together.

At the moment, at least, electronic tools do not provide a rich enough range for dense inscriptions, and they are unlikely to do so as long as the gulf between graphic objects and textual objects remains deeply imbedded in [our writing tools].”

Let me wrap up this foray into 18th century poetry and academic research by pointing to one of my current favorite examples of how word and image can be successfully merged. Brian O’Leary, a writer and publishing industry consultant whom I’ve recently met, gave a terrific presentation at TOC 2011. Called “Context first: A Unified Field Theory of Publishing”, his talk is very much worth watching. But for the purposes of this post what’s most interesting are his tools and creative method.

The software Brian used is called Prezi, a novel alternative to PowerPoint’s one-slide-after-another layout. In Prezi [prezi.com], you compose on what amounts to an infinite canvas. Then, when giving your talk you zoom in and out and pan back and forth between the points you want to focus on. It’s perfect for the kind of word and image confections that Brian and his illustrator (his son Frank, it turns out) put together. As for his method? Brian explains:

I wrote the first draft of the presentation (longhand; I was stuck on a plane too small to open my laptop), keyboarded it and sent it to Frank.  He e-mailed back, “Thanks; now I understand”…Two days later, he sent me storyboards, mostly pencil drawings scanned into a PDF, for the first third of the presentation. They matched and extended my words.  Soon Frank was inking the drawings, importing them into Illustrator, adding some spot colors and finally laying them out using Prezi. The initial draft evolved into a somewhat longer script. We sat together several times to do partial and full run-throughs, collaborations that led to other changes in language as well as a few transitions. (http://bit.ly/eoFUSz)

Handwritten drafts! Collaborative compositions between writers and illustrators! Blake and Kaplan would have been delighted.