Writing by hand (and the origin of tickling)


Charles Darwin's daughter Annie

Still reading about Charles Darwin, this time Annie’s Box, a lovely family memoir written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. Annie of the title was Darwin’s daughter, who died at the age of ten. This book has loads of personal detail about the family itself, and weaves Darwin’s professional life with his years as a husband and father.

Darwin comes across as a devoted parent whose fascination for his children stemmed not only from fatherhood but from his work. Keynes mines Darwin’s many notebooks for insight into his ancestor, and Darwin’s enthusiasm for a wide array of topics shines through as we read of him designating notebooks for his various explorations.

His “natural history of babies” began in a book with a white vellum cover, inside which he noted how his infant son “stretched himself just like old person” and how, when Darwin touched the sole of his baby’s foot with a piece of paper, “it jerked it away very suddenly and curled its toes, like person tickled, evidently subject to tickling…. What can be origin of movement from tickling?”

I love the idea of Darwin scribbling away in his books, a different one for each topic, and how he let his thoughts tumble forth at random, not worrying about how illegible they were or how awkward the sentences. These were private notebooks at the time, and obviously an integral part of his process.

For me, the act of writing by hand is still an important part of my work, though so much of my writing day is spent at the computer. I tend, in the early stages of a project, to stay away from the computer altogether, and simply carry a book with me, so I can jot down my thoughts as they come — at random, without context, but full of promise that they will somehow be strung together into something legible and compelling.

Occasionally I’ll even paste images or articles that seem connected to my thoughts, so the books take on a kind of scrapbook look over time. All of this is such an essential and intimate part of my process, and has been since I started writing seriously. Sitting in front of the blank computer screen is too daunting early on, not to mention uninspiring. But when a story starts to take shape, or when a character seems human, I’m rooted in my chair, fingers on the keys while I work the notes into something more cohesive. Things grow from there.

But even once the story gets going, there are still times when I’ll move back to the notebook — times when I’m stuck and need a closer physical connection to the page. So for me, it’s very much an act of moving back and forth between the old-fashioned notebook and the computer. We can make “notes” now on the computer, and do so many things that mimic handwriting — scratching a red line with the Track Changes tool, and adding our new ideas in red, or any colour we like. While I use those tools extensively, I don’t use them exclusively. They aren’t quite (for me) the real thing.


Strangely, with The Occupied Garden, I made  a notebook after the fact. The research and writing of this book was such a long an arduous process that I had trouble letting it go and moving on to something new. So I began to collect notes and images that hadn’t made their way into the final story, and I placed them into a book that became a memento of that time.

I’ve never stayed loyal to one brand of notebook, as much as I like the idea of that. Certain projects seem to require certain types of books, and I like to feel that out when I’m looking for a new one. But recently I came across some gorgeous ones called Cover Stories, given that their covers are taken from vintage hardback books and transformed into spiral-bound journals. The maker of these charming journals, Eva Kolcze, says that for the most part the books were rescued from a box in a rummage sale or a shelf at Goodwill.


“I feel as though I’m giving the books a new life and purpose,” she says. “There are certain books that I’ve found recently that are far too special to turn into journals, for example I recently came across a 1939 Pears Encyclopedia and a tiny book about John Ruskin which was probably printed in 1903.”


A great lover of hardcover books, she says she chooses the images for their “distinct colours, illustrations, fonts and stories they contained.” That they contain them no longer is a little unsettling for me as a writer, but then again maybe it’s not such a disturbing idea that decades from now one of my own covers evolves, and provides inspiration to a scribbler like me.



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6 responses to “Writing by hand (and the origin of tickling)

  1. Holden

    I use a notebook myself. I also write with a fountain pen. It dulls the pain of marking so many papers.

    • kristendenhartog

      Nice — I like fountain pens, and would use them myself, but as a lefty I smudge out what I’ve written as I go, and since I have enough trouble getting something on the page these days already, it’s not very effective….

  2. Julie

    Last night was thinking of you and Darwin as I read Adam Gopnik’s recent article (11May) in the New Yorker, “The Fifth Blade.”
    Article not available for free on line, but abstract is: (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_gopnik): “Evolution we have always been told, is driven by stress, by the struggle for existence. The new idea is almost the opposite, arguing that animals’ appearance alters and their behavior changes not in conditions of scarcity, but in landscapes of plentitude. This pattern makes for “relaxed selection.” Writer considers the idea that seemingly ornamental features such as the peacock’s plumage and the elk’s antlers are there to help the animal attract a good mate. Some newer theorists argue that the entire notion of sexual selection as a form of self-seeking improvement on the part of each beast is a myth and that peahens, for example, choose their mates more or less at random. In this view, we are born to be inherently frivolous aesthetes, who like change for change’s sake.”

  3. jim

    Read your latest last night and tonight in the Borneo Bulletin there is an article on laughter and tickling; ‘Ape study traces evolution and laughter’. Chuck Darwin is mentioned as he noticed the characteristic sounds apes make when being tickled. The study concluded that the roots of laughter can be traced way up or is it down our family tree. No mention of his scribbled notes though (-: .

    • kristendenhartog

      Nice. Next on my list is The Expression of Emotions …. Have you read? I notice you have moved from Charles to Charlie to Chuck. I guess the friendship is evolving!

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