“The book you see was written in the outer seats (of the cloister); while I wrote, I froze, and what I could not write by daylight, I finished by candlelight.”
Ludwig of Wessobron, a German Monk
“Three fingers write, yet the whole body is in travail. Those who do not know how to write do not think it is labour!”
An unknown English Monk
These quotes from Medieval scribes made me think of all the writers who came before us who didn’t have the luxuries and immense riches that we have. Take Shakespeare. He wrote all his immortal plays and sonnets without the benefit of a dictionary or thesaurus (see Sans Dictionary). He had to pull all those marvelous words and phrases from his head or massage the messages found in a handful of histories. He wrote with quill pens and ink made of sap or maybe mud. When evening fell, he wrote by candlelight or firelight.
Or consider Henry David Thoreau penning his inspiring words at Walden Pond. There’s a wonderful passage in Walden in which he describes writing while acorns fell around him — it’s so lovely that you can almost hear them plopping gently to the ground.
Then there is the divine Emily Dickinson, penning her lustrous poems in a small, probably drafty, room at a small desk by candlelight late into the night, often on randomly rescued scraps of paper: old envelopes, canning labels, prescription forms.
These scriveners had none of the writing paraphernalia that we take for granted: computers, the Internet, writing guides, how-to seminars, critique groups, Book Scan — and on and on.
What I wonder, have we lost and what have we gained by virtue of all the extraordinary tools we now have at our command? Have we grown closer to the word or drifted farther from it? Have all these writing resources helped us or impoverished us in some mysterious, elemental way? I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, but I do know that more often than not, keeping it simple is the best strategy. What do you think? Did writers in earlier eras benefit by having to do more with less? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. And write on!