Writing and its tactile essence

Writing can be as much a physical activity as a mental one. Eventually the distinction between physical and mental can break down, and it seems like sentences simply flow from mind to page.

I was intrigued by this section from J. M. Coetzee’s essay on Robert Walser. Walser started writing with a pen but switched to pencil.

Use of a pencil was important enough for Walser to call it his “pencil system” or “pencil method.” What he does not mention is that when he moved to pencil-writing he radically changed his script. At his death he left behind some five hundred sheets of paper covered in a microscopic pencil script so difficult to read that his executor at first took them to be a diary in secret code. In fact Walser had kept no diary. Nor is the script a code: it is simply handwriting with so many idiosyncratic abbreviations that, even for editors familiar with it, unambiguous decipherment is not always possible. It is in these pencil drafts alone that Walser’s numerous late works, including his last novel, The Robber (twenty-four sheets of microscript, 141 pages in print), have come down to us.

More interesting than the script itself is the question of what the “pencil method” made possible to Walser as a writer that the pen could no longer provide (he still used a pen for fair copies, as well as for correspondence). The answer seems to be that, like an artist with a stick of charcoal between his fingers, Walser needed to get a steady, rhythmic hand movement going before he could slip into a frame of mind in which reverie, composition, and the flow of the writing tool became much the same thing. In a piece entitled “Pencil Sketch” dating from 1926-1927, he mentions the “unique bliss” that the pencil method allowed him. “It calms me down and cheers me up,” he said elsewhere. Walser’s texts are driven neither by logic nor by narrative but by moods, fancies, and associations: in temperament he is less a thinker or storyteller than an essayist. The pencil and the self-invented stenographic script allowed the purposeful, uninterrupted, yet dreamy hand movement that had become indispensable to his creative mood.

(found on Caustic Cover Critic)

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