Column: My laptop’s in the shop. So I did something radical — wrote a column by hand.

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

We live in a world of devices designed to make life easy. The toaster. The phone. The laptop. We grow dependent on these objects, rarely pausing to think how lost we’d be without them.

Only when fate snatches them away — when they break, get lost, get stolen — do we appreciate them as the luxuries and miracles they are. Only then do we recognize how incompetent we are without these gizmos that humans before us lived without for millennia.

Wait. Is that how millennia is spelled? And is that an accurate use of the word “gizmo”?

If I were writing this the way I usually write my columns, on the modern gizmo known as a laptop, I’d take a moment to Google both words. Alas, I am not writing this column the usual way because I do not have my trusty laptop. It’s out for repair, which means I’ve been condemned to writing the old-fashioned way, with a pen and paper, a seemingly simple act I approach with a mild terror.

Am I capable of writing an entire column in longhand? Of writing 750 or so words with no equipment fancier than my blue Dr. Grip pen and a yellow legal pad? How will I even know how many words I’ve written without my trusty laptop to tell me?

When I took my laptop in for repair early last week, which coincided with taking a few days off work, I was confident I’d have it back in time to meet my next deadline. The machine has been acting up for a while and I was afraid that it would die suddenly and leave me with the one thing I dread more than a deadline — a deadline and no machine to write on.

I think there’s a name for the principle involved when you try to solve a problem before it’s a problem and in the process create the very problem you were trying to avoid. If I had my trusty laptop, I’d search for that term online. Instead, I’ll just keep pushing my Dr. Grip.

I comfort myself with the thought that for most of human history this is how writers wrote, fingers gnarled around a pen or pencil, scratching away, struggling to set down words as fast as the thoughts came. Those primitive souls couldn’t delete their bad sentences simply by holding down the backspace key. To move blocks of words around — i.e., to cut and paste — they needed scissors and real paste. To check spelling or a fact, they had to leaf through a dictionary or encyclopedia or newspaper. No quick trip to Google for them.

At least I belong to a generation that was taught penmanship as a high value, so theoretically, writing a column by hand shouldn’t be that hard. I wrote letters in longhand long into my 20s. But writing, like the rest of life, is built on habits, and like most people I’ve lost the handwriting habit. My penmanship has devolved into an inscrutable scrawl. The only times I write by hand now are to scribble into a reporter’s notebook or to write a condolence or birthday card; none of those requires serious structuring of thoughts. Structure is the hardest part of writing and it’s easier on a computer.

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Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

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I remind myself that I’ve written columns and newspaper stories in all sorts of crazy conditions. Sitting in cars and on courthouse floors, in the rubble of earthquakes and hurricanes. I’ve dictated stories off the top of my head over the phone. Once it was in Mexico after a hurricane, to an editor in Chicago who mercifully kept saying, “Take your time. Take a breath. You can do this.”

I hear his voice as I scrawl these words.

Ernest Hemingway, among other famous writers of yore, was known to write by hand. I’ve heard of writers today who claim they do. They talk about how handwriting taps into a mental well unavailable in front of a computer screen, where the demons of distraction are always cooing, “Hey, why don’t you stop writing for a while and see what’s happening on Twitter?”

But I’m guessing even they transfer their words to a computer eventually and enjoy the ease of adding, deleting and moving stuff around.

“Why don’t you write your column on your phone?” a friend suggested when I lamented my laptop predicament. She mentioned a millennial writer who wrote a bestseller on her phone.

But, again, life is mostly habit, and that prospect struck me as far worse than the finger cramps I’ve endured while composing this column by hand. Now that it’s over I can appreciate it as an adventure I’ve enjoyed for its uniqueness. And hope never to repeat.

mschmich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MarySchmich