Neal Stephenson’s Writing Buffer

Posted by on October 20, 2008 at 8:32 pm.

From an interview with Neal Stephenson:

James Mustich: You write with a fountain pen.

Neal Stephenson: Yes.

JM: Have you always done that?

NS: No. I started that with the Baroque Cycle. Cryptonomicon was the last thing I wrote with a word processor. What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it. Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Now this is completely staggering. Stephenson’s work is ridiculously voluminous. I’ve only read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (and because of that novel alone, I put Stephenson amongst my favorite fiction authors). After this he released roughly 3,000 pages of his Baroque Cycle and then this latest offering is around 800 pages.  Also, I know, for instance, that John Milbank writes out everything by hand as well, and his output is pretty considerable as well.

Even though I always carry my moleskine with me while I am reading to take notes and copy pertinent quotations, due to my carpal tunnel, I cannot write for extended periods of time before my wrist begins hurting (maybe I need to re-learn how to hold my wrist, I dunno?).  So, somewhat ironically, it seems like I am tied to the device that messed me up in the first place.

Technicalities aside, what do you think?  Does anybody else write everything out longhand for reasons similar to Stephenson?

Bonus bit:

JM: In the Gresham talk, you discuss how the gatekeepers of the bestseller list remake the list to reflect what their idea of a proper book is.

NS: [LAUGHS] Well, I’m going to have to start moderating that, since Anathem is about to be #1 on the New York Times List.

JM: Congratulations.

NS: Thanks. Quite a shock for a book about Husserl’s Metaphysics [sic].


[Note: this post was entirely typed out on a computer.]