The More Things Change: A Millennium of Writers’ Marginal Notes

The monks have crossed my mind occasionally over the past couple of years – specifically the scribes and illuminators who made up much of the writing and publishing industry the last time it faced down a technological revolution of the scale we’re facing now – but today my thoughts are on continuity rather than change.

My attention’s been drawn to a piece on Brain Pickings that probably owes its existence to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How The World Became Modern. It suggests some writers’ gripes and wants and needs are, reassuringly, timeless. It seems that a search through the illuminated manuscripts of many centuries ago has found more than the word of God on the page. It’s found the words of the monks in the margins.

‘Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.’ Yes, yes my friend from long ago, it does. Even if by writing you mean copying out St Augustine’s meditations and I mean grappling to find the right next word, staring a lot, banging away at qwerty keys, etc. Show me a writer with a good back, great eyesight and nothing twisted, and I’ll show you someone who’s on first-name terms with Dragon Dictate or franchising the grind more comprehensively than James Patterson.

‘That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.’ A track changes comment from my editor? No. Some un-named brother with an editorial bent a long long time ago. (OK, it’s also a track changes comment from my editor, but some time with me twisting my stomach and crooking my back seemed to fix the problem. Or wore her down. I choose not to ask which.)

Then there’s my favourite. It might sound like Brendan Behan in the mid 20th century, or many novelists I know in the early 21st, but no, it’s apparently a monk again, from centuries earlier: ‘Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.’

In one sense, of course, the jobs of monk scribes and novelists are opposite – a novel is driven by imagination, while scribing is driven by suppressing it. A novel is an act of invention, and copying is plagiarism. A scribe’s work is an act of copying, with the text not even to be questioned, let alone altered.

These two kinds of writing jobs may differ, but it looks as if some of the complaints of writers go back a long long way and have been shared by many of us who put brush to parchment, pen to paper or fingertips to keys. At least the vow of poverty is now less formal, and some of us have heating when it’s cold.

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One Response to The More Things Change: A Millennium of Writers’ Marginal Notes

  1. Loved this post, Nick – particularly that last : for god’s sake, give me a drink. As you say, it’s very Brendan Behan. I used to think, when struggling with the current novel and ruminating bitterly on the new technological developments* that I should’ve been a monk in the middle ages just writing out someone else’s stuff and painting beautiful margins etc. I glad you’ve disabused me of this idea.
    Anyway, hullo and best to you,
    Danielle

    * I have a fantasy that I’ll wake up one morning to discover the net has died and that the best minds in the world can’t revive it – but I know that’s as likely as horse drawn carriages being here to stay in 1910.

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