The magic of the quill

The quillIt’s an old adage that what you write with, your tools, affects what you write.

When I turned twenty, I celebrated my birthday with family but didn’t make a big deal of it to my friends. (Parties are stressful. You have to make them happen. I loved my 21st, but by then I’d come out of my shell a lot.)

So one of my friends decided someone needed to make a big deal of it, if I wouldn’t.

He asked when I was working, went to my house, snuck into my room (with my parents’ help), and left me a present.

Don’t get all excited. It wasn’t a mountain bike or a pet puma or anything.

He’d given me a pen. One of those fancy ones, with a real brand name, and replaceable cartridges that cost almost as much as the pen. And these pens cost a little bit! They’re not exorbitant, but you don’t get them for just messing around in your school books. You get them for your office, for sitting on your desk when big clients visit, for signing important documents.

When I picked this pen up, it felt heavy. Metal. Full of the promise of unwritten, unspoken words.

I checked the card:

For all the stories you will write,

and for the story you will write with your life.

He’s a bit of a poet, and he knows it. He just won’t admit it.

This wasn’t a surprise. I used to always write my stories out in longhand first, feverishly raking my pen hand over the page, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ with a ferocity unknown to the previously blank paper, finally splattering ink spots as I broke the cartridge with my grip. Everywhere I went, I had callouses and ink stains all over my fingers.

And I loved it.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting at my use of the computer to write.

Sure, it’s faster. And I can touch type quite well, so my hands can keep up with my brain without getting cramps or RSI.

And I love copying and pasting sentences from one paragraph to another without the use of *asterisks* and <<arrows>>.

But in the past month I’ve been writing short stories for competitions, and found myself returning more and more frequently to drafting all of these in longhand, starting with a blank piece of paper and making inky marks on it. I used to do this with novels but recently, time limits mean that I draft my novels on the computer, too lazy to write each wrong word out by hand and then cross it out and write a better word by hand.

Computer makes me write shorter sentences.  Handwriting makes me write with more adjectives.  My one gorgeous quill makes me write next to nothing because honestly it is so hard to hold.

I’ve been thinking about the if:Book Australia project The N00bz, where different authors were asked to try writing in a different way or a different craft.

Simon Groth tried writing his freelance pieces on a typewriter instead of a computer for a month ( It took way longer; redrafting was a long and tedious process; and at the end he still had to email the piece to his editor rather than posting the manuscript he’d typed by hand. But the process retained its romance, reminding him of favourite authors and of childhood (his mother was a typist). And unlike a 6-year-old Mac, the 40-year-old Underwood still worked as well as it did when it was first made. Woody Allen says of his Olympia: ‘I bought this when I was sixteen. It still works like a tank.’

Benjamin Law tried recording all of his ‘journalism’ interviews using shorthand instead of with a voice recording device ( Using a device, a 60-minute recorded interview can take him up to 3 hours to transcribe. Using shorthand, the notes were taken immediately – but were they readable? After all, he was learning a whole new alphabet to write with.

James Bradley wrote his first ever comic book ( He found that it was totally different to writing for screen – that moments had to be specifically captured on specific pages, not just specific panels within a page as he’d thought, and that the balance between visuals and dialogue was harder to manage than he’d thought. Comics critic Ronnie Scott then tried to write a comic, and found it equally challenging (

What about for non-writing creators?

In 2011 I began a fun project where I painted a picture on canvas for each of my close friends at the time for their birthdays. It was a great experience. I hadn’t painted in a while, and there was a lot I’d been looking forward to about it – making things! Seeing the thing that you made! The joy of giving that thing to someone else and seeing how they enjoy it!

But there were also unexpected benefits:

I found that when I paint, the whole world goes still and quiet and peaceful.

I might hum along to the music I’m playing, its beat spurring my fingers on, but inside my head, it’s quiet. This is a miracle in itself. My brain never stops whirring. It’s one reason I struggle with anxiety – when you can’t stop your brain from thinking about everything constantly, it’s hard to stop it from worrying about lots of the everything.

But as I’m painting, I’m literally only thinking, There is paint here. There is no paint there. Put some paint there next, okay?

Ugh, wrong colour. Paint over that bit. Ooh, better. Well done.

Now clean your brush. Good.

I regularly forget, in the busy-ness of life, that these still, quiet moments could be that precious for me again, if I just went downstairs and made some room to get out my paints and blank canvasses. I forget that I could easily reach a place of relaxation again. It seems like it would be a lot of effort. I forget that it was worth it.

Simon Groth said, ‘Few writers today will leave behind an object that has acted as singular midwife to a career, celebrated or otherwise.’

And I think that’s why I’ll never throw out this pen. Or my paints. No matter how fancy or quick computers become.

These tools are an extension of me in my making process, as much as I the designer am a part of the process. Like a midwife, these tools birthed my creative process; in helping me to create, they brought things out of me and into the world. And while using physical tools is always a messy experience (ewwww), the creating has to make it worth it.


What do you write with? How does that make you feel? 😉


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

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