I like stationary. There are so many wonderful notebooks and watermarked sheets to choose from when the internet allows you to browse the global marketplace. I recall a few years ago standing in a street in Positano gazing at the hand-bound books of marbled paper in a shop window. Paper has been made along the Amalfi coast since Medieval times. I resisted the temptation to purchase (just) but am not so disciplined on other occasions. A new notebook offers so many possibilities, perhaps too many. The act of writing instantly and progressively reduces the options for what the book will be telling, and regret can come quickly.
“She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”Nicholls, D. (2011). One day. Hachette UK.
If the material to write on fails to distract, there is always the means of writing to consider. I must be towards the end of the era when undergraduate work was all hand-written – which could be a challenge. Fast-speaking lecturers, without the offer of typed notes, tested many students’ ability to record the key points. However, the ceremony of writing, especially with a fountain pen, continues to appeal. I can empathise with the irritation of King Charles when pens fail to ink, or leak their cargo when least expected. (I was allowed to return to the church where I blotted the Service Register). Despite these perils I share the delight Seamus Heaney finds in the feel and flow of a quality pen.
The nib uncapped,Seamus Heaney, The Conway Stewart, in Human Chain, Faber and Faber Limited, 2010
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,
Letting it rest then at an angle
Other disincentives to write include the sheer volume of texts now written, and the outstanding quality of some contemporary writing. I was deeply sorry to learn in recent days of the death of Hilary Mantel. The skill Mantel manages to effect in her Cromwell trilogy is astonishing. All the more so because even 500 years later, writing about this period of English history remains fraught with ‘positions’ and continuing political implications. It is a credit to her craft that people from so many different religious backgrounds and cultures read and applaud these novels. Perhaps this is because the humanity of her characters, and Cromwell in particular, shine through so convincingly. Seldom have I been so moved by reading anything, as I was by the conclusion of The Mirror & the Light when Cromwell is taken to his execution.
“His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush”.Mantel, H. (2020). The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Vol. 3). Henry Holt and Company. Chicago
The splendid Slightly Foxed Ltd published its limited edition of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), in 2017. The book is a moving narrative and addresses some of Mantel’s motivation to write.
I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see til I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, 2017 Slightly Foxed Ltd p. 207
Perhaps writers all need this sense of compulsion in order to succeed in seeing their story to the end. Goodness knows how many incomplete books exist, or how many finished works languish in a drawer, rejected for publication at every turn. BBC Radio 4’s comedy-drama Ed Reardon’s Week is a modern and amusing take on a long history of frustrated authors. In the nineteenth century a central character in Middlemarch, the middle-aged cleric-scholar Edward Casaubon dies with his opus magnum incomplete: The Key to All Mythologies. Ambitious in scope and sprawling in nature, George Eliot exposes the opposite problem to the anxiety of the blank page: too many details, too many notes and references, an endless number of pages and an unending topic to study.
On reflection, maybe it’s time to fire up the search engine once again and ponder the merits of paper weight, ‘tooth’, and stitched binding…