Neal Sheeran

Rants, Raves, and Geekery

Now That Is Writing


A few years ago while I was overseas, I read the first two volumes of Shelby Foote’s massive narrative of the Civil War. Just today I picked up Volume 3. I know I’m not alone in becoming a fan of his after his appearance in Ken Burns’ documentary – which I just started watching again on DVD. I poked around the internet and stumbled upon a transcript of an interview from the show Booknotes. Foote’s history of the Civil War took 20 years to write; about 3000 pages and 1.5 million words. And he wrote it 500 words at a time, in longhand, with a dip pen.

FOOTE: Five hundred or 6OO words is a good day for me. I write with a dip pen, which causes all kind of problems – everything from finding blotters to pen points – but it makes me take my time, and it gives me a real feeling of satisfaction. I’m getting where I’m going.

…But a dip pen, you have to dip it in the ink and write three or four words and dip it again. It has a real influence on the way I write, so different not only from a typewriter but from using a pencil or a fountain pen.

LAMB: What do you do with it after it’s written the 500 words every day?

FOOTE: I set it aside to dry; then copy it off on a typewriter, make a typewritten copy of it and then recopy on that until finally the day is over and I’m all the way satisfied with it and I put it on the stack – make a clean copy and put it on the stack. That way I don’t have to engage in something that to me is a particular form of heartbreak, which is revision. I don’t do that.

Holy smokes. This reminds me of the opposite end of the spectrum: Truman Capote’s quote about Jack Kerouac writing On The Road on a single 120-foot scroll of tracing paper: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Update (1 Jan 11): Revisiting this post and I noticed the transcript link was bed. Now fixed.