The birthday bone
From the archives: In praise of re-reading

Finding the way, word by word

From At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

From A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens & Eugene Onegin by Alexander Puskin

From "Memory and Imagination" by essayist & memoirist Patricia Hampl:

"Is it possible to convey the enormous degree of blankness, confusion, hunch, and uncertainty lurking in the act of writing? When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me, which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.

From The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle & To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolfe

"But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long line of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, and confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to figure out what it wants to say. This is a writer's frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.

From Persuasion by Jane Austen & Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

"I think of the reader as a cat, endlessly fastidious, capable by turns of mordant indifference and riveted attention, luxurious, recumbent, ever poised. Whereas the writer is absolutely a dog, panting and moping, too eager for an affectionate scratch behind the ears, longing frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.

Early versions of her stories, in letter form, by Beatrix Potter

"The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me. Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer's stereotypic 'blank white page.' At least when I begin writing, my page has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as much as on a blank white one. We all have our ways of whistling in the dark."

From House of Mirth by Edith Wharton & Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

From The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

From Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake & The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Pictures: The manuscript pages here are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) For modern manuscripts & writers' notebooks, go here for a wonderful post on the subject by Jackie Morris.

Words: The passage above comes from an essay published in I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl (WW Norton & Co., 1999); all rights reserved by the author.


Unfortunately the use of computers today stops us doodling in the margins or indeed over the whole page. How much 'writer's art' have we lost as a result of this? And isn't it about time that somebody wrote a PHD on the said art? I suppose we could print up hard-copy and doodle on that, but I suspect it'd lose something of its spontaneity.

In my early days of using longhand I favoured owls, elephants and horses' heads. I wonder if this gives any sort of insight on a confused mind. In fact, isn't that another PHD waiting to be written; the psychology of writer's doodles?

Hi Terri

I absolutely love this, those old pages with the writer's sketching, scratch-outs and just plain, rough-hewn script. When younger, I often wrote in the blank fly leafs of old poetry books,the first draft of my own poems. In some surreal way, I was hoping to be inspired by the author, feel close to the work of a significant writer. I felt through the words of the poet or storyteller, his or her spirit lingered on the pages, haunting the blank space between the lines, listening to the breath, the thoughts and even the budding creations of the reader. Here's a poem that demonstrates this old practice of mine when browsing through a book of poems by Frederic Mistral. I loved his work depicting the climate and character of Provence and the South of France.

Inside An Old Book Of Poems By Mistral

Part of me lingers here,
a garment of loose script
on the fly leaf, an unhemmed draft
of something or nothing.

This book has been stitched
by hand. Its paper stiff;
but your voice groomed with a typeface
called Garamond,
sounds like a Bohemian dance
from the South.

Your lines often sing
of an ocean wind, shore birds
and bell towers looming
over vineyards ripe
with black grapes, a maiden's love
for the basket maker.

Yet , that silence in-between
tells me you are there
listening to stories outside
your valley beyond
the stone fortress
of Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer.

And maybe, you hear mine --
a woman tattered in her own verse
struggling to find insight, gain closer
access to you. Carefully, I thumb

through all these pages,
your breath fanned in the lamplight - emitting
a faint blend of tobacco and dust.

Many Thanks

OMG! "a woman tattered in her own verse..."
OMG -I needs hang up work for today, that meteorited me right out of the mundane universe. Breathtaking.

This is so rich. I have to read it over and over again. Mitra; a poet I know nothing about, explained, and not I must find him. Glorious words with triple meanings or more. Like finding golden rings in sand by a simmering sunny sea.

What an array of beloved writers. I just type now, but I have a journal, with little flowers covering up misspellings. little people demonstrating costumes or hats, or ink. When I was very young, I illustrated my stories and poems with all kinds of characters, fairies, princesses and princes, witches good and witches bad, and many animals who could talk. Thank you so much for this. Something I wished for, but didn't know it. Lovely.

One of your very best, Wendy.

I still like to print manuscripts out, make changes by hand, and then input them into the digital text...but I suspect I do that just because I began my writing career in the old typewriter days, and old habits die hard. I doubt that many of our younger writer colleagues bother with that step.

Absolutely gorgeous, Wendy. I agree with Stuart: one of your very best.

Nothing, nothing, nothing beats a journal. Computers are useful, no doubt, but handwritten, hand-sketched journals have *soul*. And you can take them into the woods....

Entirely agree; you can 'see' mistakes far more easily in printed hard copy. But my very first novel was written entirely in longhand (couldn't afford a typewriter)and that's the best of all for artistic doodling.

Hi Jenny

So glad you enjoyed this poem and I deeply appreciate your enthusiasm toward! Thank you so much for your gracious and lovely comments!

My Best

Thanks so much Stuart

for letting me know this one really works! I deeply appreciate that!

My Best

Hi Terri

Thank you so much for reading and commenting so favorably on this poem. I'm glad you enjoyed it and deeply appreciate the encouragement!

Take care

Hi Phyllis

Your beautiful commentary is very deeply appreciated! I am glad you enjoyed this and recommend Frederick Mistral. His writing is very imagistic and lyrical in language and cadence.

Again many thanks!
Take care

There are free-form tools in most (if not all) pdf file readers. A good pad (e.g. from Wacom) in A5 size is pretty much like using a pen (with the advantage of some level of "undo"!). I mark up a large number of documents using the pdf tools and I find them as good as working on paper other than the fact that I can't do it on my tube journey.

Hello Dark Puss, many thanks for the advice, but as a latter-day Luddite I will probably always prefer pen and paper. Not only that but phrases like 'free-form tools' and 'pdf file readers' might just as well be written in Sumerian Cuneiform for all the meaning I can glean from them. I'm afraid I'm a bit steam-powered.

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