Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Tools of the trade

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C'est ne pas un stylo

C'est ne pas une

Fresh and a bit ragged from a recent discussion with a fellow author – Mr Unnamed, and the discussion was in a licenced premises, with a fair amount of ribaldry and the kind of mockery that men friends so lavishly shower on one another – I tried to revisit a long-standing practice about writing. This is something you meddle with at your peril. But change is good, right..? No, not in this case. Result: I have to conclude that pen I am using isn’t a pen at all. It’s actually a wand, or maybe it’s even a madeleine.

I told my friend that it looks like I’ll always be reaching for paper and pen first, not keyboard or touchscreen. That said, I felt I had to show some cred and remind him that our house is littered with laptops and desktops nonetheless. An iPad is always in use; an iPad always finds its way under the pillow every night. It has been this way for - yikes - nearly thirty years. It started with running punch card SPSS, led through the howling wastes of DOS and emerged into the sunny uplands of Windows 7, Lion, IOS.

My point? Computers, computing, wordprocessing, idea-mapping, voice-dictation – they’re no big deal in writing. Wait - maybe a coda to that: the voice-dictation is a big deal, could be a big deal. Yes, voice dictation software has gotten so good that it can machete its way though the thickets of the Irish accent that I have. But somehow, none of these – not even the voice dictation - have absolutely anything to do with taking out a pen and paper each morning.

This pen and paper slavery / enchantment has been this way since… well whenever it was that we were finally allowed to use a pen and pencil way back in Primary School.

A little recap of what that early schooling was – and this is not for folkloric purposes. I believe more and more that those first encounters with words are the foundations of what an adult writer does.

It is not just the words either. It’s the routines and rules around words; it’s the shapes that flit across a page of words, the mysterious spaces and spots. It’s the smell of the pages, the ink, the rasping on the pad of your finger as you turn another page. It’s also looking up for a moment to see a room full of people doing the same mysterious communing with … Well, I call them imaginary friends. So that’s what the pen and paper is all about, maybe: a wand, and a spell to summon up these characters and their worlds. A blinking cursor looks like an intersection at night, an empty garishly-lighted nowhere, the very image of loneliness and indifference.

Back to that schoolroom. The idea that we too could put down words on paper was daring, but it actually came true. It started with a piece of chalkboard and a ration of chalk – really – and zero instructions. If I remember anything about that mixed class of Low Babies, or Middle Infants, or Senior Infants (actual names and designations) it might be Mrs Lally suggesting to ‘try some of those up there,’ and waving her arm in the general direction of the front of the classroom. This might have been my introduction to education by provocation. I have struggled to improve on that since.

First words were written on these mini-chalkboards. It wasn’t easy. It’s not much easier now, telling my kids either. They consider this rigamarole Babylonian. At the end of the school day, these chalkboards were wiped thoroughly. I remember no regret about this purging, no feeling that they needed to be kept. And this is odd, because childhood is keenly attuned to any loss, or absence. We knew right away there were always more words to be had. They could be plucked out of the air. The air in Ireland, or in my family generally at least, was and is teeming with words. Talk remains canonical there too. It was nothing for my parents to sit for hours talking, pausing, lighting a cigarette and thinking, and then talking again. We’re the same, but without the smokes.

So: by First Class (Grade 1) we were scratching our way across a page with a pen. This we did by dipping a nib every five or six words in the inkwells at the head of our desks. Then we were blowing on the ink to dry it, or turning to blotting paper. We quickly learned it was a mistake to close a notebook without a careful check whether the ink had dried. Mistakes – misspellings, misfires / false starts with the letters themselves could look as ugly as a plateful of mortal sins. Later, we tried an eraser that was said to be good for ‘ink.’ It wasn’t, it made things even worse. Making a line with a ruler and pen was tricky, very tricky, but it could be done. The skill lay in how you lifted the ruler after drawing the pen across. New nibs were bought (5 or 6 to a pack) and exchanged. The stylus – a simple piece of wood pretty well the same as the upper reaches of a chopstick – could be lost. It was not a tragedy. But a fountain pen was a glorious thing, an artifact of the real, grown-up world. You'd sign a cheque with one of those, or sentence a villain to jail.

It was always worth a look around the room to see what contortions my classmates got into to get comfortable writing. Tongues were very often wedged between teeth. Noses were looked down too, as though their owners were defusing a bomb and not writing a word. Feet and legs went odd places. There was fidgeting, stretches you could get money for in a circus act, mutterings. The occasional fart could cause havoc. Our schools were segregated right until the end of secondary school, so this talent was practised to excess, even to a point of personal pride and achievement. Unless you could react in time and lift the pen, the laughter, whether for farting or for anything else, was marked out like a seismograph on your page.

There were plenty of mini-disasters with ink, especially ‘blots.’ Blots were blobs of ink that escaped the nib or dropped from an over-laden nib. A snotty nose or drool could wreck your work, but it make interesting patterns of the inked lines that it blurred and ruined. When I saw pictures of monks or scribes or illustrations from Dickens, these people were not strangers. At the butchers, in the bank, at the local shop, with the milkman, and on innumerable receipts, adults wrote with verve and often a flourish. Many would flourish the paper a few moments before handing it over, as though they had signed the Constitution into being.

My father had firm, consistent handwriting that leaned forward, and it loped along effortlessly for page after page. It was, I now realize, much how he walked too – canted easily forward a bit, tirelessly covering the miles and the years. And it was probably how he talked too, in that unremarkable can’t-surprise-me Dublin accent. In Dublin Castle where he worked as a civil servant for close to half a century, his desk always bore stacks of papers. Rare was the one that did not bear some handwriting.

The handwriting in my mother’s letters are all full of a more prancing, divagant style. They are not at all ‘good penmanship;’ and they are the better for that too. They seem to pause, to detour, and then to press on in that same lively, sprightly way that she walked and that she talked, all the whimsy and humour of her Clare-inflected accent running merry and loose. Without a doubt, her handwriting betrayed her deep attachment to music and song. Her notes and shopping lists (‘messages,’ we called grocery shopping) looked more like musical scores. She liked the capital g a lot, I now think. Maybe it gave her room to play a bit.

Your body stores memory; muscle memory is the one we think we are getting a handle on better lately. But there is a lot more to it than this. Somewhere, the act of moving a pen across a page became a reflex. This pen is not a device for putting down rows of symbols that will make sense (eventually!) It is a way of gathering, of drawing down what I need from whatever it is that carries all the words and the voices. Maybe it’s a dowsing rod that maps the subterranean, or a conductor’s baton that allows music to emerge from all that brass and horsehair and wood and God knows what else.

Somehow – and immediately I write this - I am back in that classroom. The motes of dust are circling in the beam of sunlight, the pens and the chalk are scratching away, some kid is whispering to himself because that’s what you need to do with words. Or I'm listening to the ebb and flow of the conversation from downstairs while I fight off sleep as only a kid of 10 can do. I can't make out the words themselves, but I can tell who is talking and why, and what way it's going, and the shifting moods of the speakers, but soon the sleep wins out. I always knew that words are music.

The saying about Mozart is that he didn’t compose first and hear his work performed after: he just wrote down what he heard. I can’t do better than that.

That’s why I need a pen, damn it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page