The scratching and hammering and tapping of writing

One of the things that we do not talk about when we talk about writing is the sound and scent and sensuality of it, the scratching and hammering and tapping, the pitter of pencils and the scribble and scrawl of pens, the quiet mumble of the electric typewriter like an old pharmacist humming, the infinitesimal skitter of forefingers on keyboards; and the curl and furl of paper, the worn and friendly feeling of pocket-notebooks, the shards and scraps on which we have started essays and stories and poems, trying to catch an angle of light or the faint sound of a child giggling in the next yard over or the way a falcon actually no kidding furrowed the air; and the dark moist smell of ink and the rough grain of dense paper and the faint scent of glue in the spines of old books; and the snap and flap as you fold a newspaper in half and then again, so that you can focus on the story above the fold. I was in a pub once in Australia when I saw a master of this craft fold a broadsheet newspaper in half, and again, and again, all in the space of perhaps five seconds, with such deft quick flips of his wrists that it seemed a magic trick to me, and I wanted to shout with delight, partly because I realized of course that he must have done this many thousands of times in his life to have achieved such unconscious skill; but I did not shout or crow, but bent again to my pint, thrilled at the prevalence of pleasures and how the smallest are not small at all.

The foldability of magazines, and the way they so easily and acquiescently allow themselves to be rolled for the pocket or against the hornet; the sturdy spidery glint and gleam of the spectacles and eyeglasses perched on our noses as we type; the creak and groan of our chairs, the silent massive patience of our desks, weighted down with piles of paper we swear we will most definitely recycle just as soon as we finish this particular project, but we lie, we lie and lie, and instead we start another project instantly, for we are dreamers night and day, and this next piece will be so much better than the last, and while we type madly, the mounds of paper on our desks and tables and shelves grumble and teeter and sometimes even suddenly slide south like tectonic plates of paper and dust.

Illustration by Stephen Knezovich

Dust itself, covering books and papers like the faintest sand or snow; the lean elegant sinew of pencils and their unassuming humility as they become stubs and nubs. The contented heft of your own book in your startled hands for the first time, or the fifth, or the tenth; it never gets old, that feeling, does it? And the sharp scent that arises when you slice open the box of first copies from your publisher, your magical, precious, priceless six copies, or twelve, or twenty, if you were devious and surreptitiously edited the number in the endless and hilarious contract (“or any other medium henceforth to be invented”?); the slither of the scissors along the thick brown strip that bound the box-flaps against the bang and brawl of transit, and the quiet pop! as the flaps open like reluctant cardboard wings, and you bend over the box and inhale … what? You could say ink and glue and new, but it’s also amazement and pride and someplace deep inside you there is still a boy, age eleven, in his room at midnight, scribbling on loose-leaf sheets, and he has no idea how to shape a story, or play with the rhythm and cadence and stutter of sentences, or catch the way people often mean exactly the reverse of what they say aloud; but he is learning, with every page of awful, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, slavish, imitative muck he composes, how to write. He will realize, many years later, that you never quite do learn how to write well, but you can continue, all your life long, to try to write with verve and zest and honesty and punch, and that perhaps one aspect of good writing is ferocious attention to sound and scent, to the immensity of the infinitesimal; for there are stories in everything, at all times, everywhere, and the writer’s task, and pleasure, and vocation, is to sing as many as possible, before you too are a story told by someone else, who will begin like this: You want to know what he was like? I’ll tell you a story. . . .

About the Author

Brian Doyle

Brian Doyle (1957–2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland and the author of many books of essays and fiction, most notably the novels Mink River and Martin Marten.

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One thought on “Sensualiterature

  1. So sad to know this gifted man has died, young. So happy for us that he left us such fine writing. It’s never just one thing, as young Cam said in the rowboat in Mrs. Dalloway, I think it was. I do thank you, Brian Doyle! You turned a good Sunday even better.

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