October 2019 The lives of letters

October 2019

Letters are funny little things; curves and strokes that make a shape and have a voice. They club together, forming letter strings, join hands to create different sounds, such as oo in boot and au in autumn and ough in… let’s ignore the personality disorder of that one! (I wonder how you pronounced it as you read?)

The twenty-six members of our alphabet seem to have lives of their own. For example, a is a friendly letter, x, rather stand-offish, q thinks too much of himself and letters that don’t change shape when they are upper-case, such as c and w and s must certainly be more self-assured.

I spend many hours editing, sometimes re-arranging, adding more, often deleting, grateful for the technology that makes this so effortless. A fountain pen and a blank sheet of white paper, the tools of classic novelists, would surely interrupt the flow in a desire to get the words right the first time. Perhaps they were skilled at editing in their minds before committing to paper, or they crossed out neatly, made corrections, and cut and pasted chunks of text with real scissors and glue.

Yet despite the ease of word-processing, deleting is a challenge. The author who has worked with words, crafted phrases, formed whole paragraphs, is reluctant to ‘kill’ their labours. I can almost hear the letters cry out in protest as the backspacing cursor races closer. If it is possible to save a few of them, I do. For example, changing smiled to grimaced, I save the ed, replacing only the stem of the word. It’s an annoying trait, but I can’t stop myself. Whole paragraphs are rarely deleted, usually copied to a notes page, where, admittedly, they lie forgotten. A mass erasure would be far too painful.

Too much screen time? Perhaps. Wrestling the thoughts and feelings of my difficult characters has had an effect on my mental state, and when a particularly lively row of consonants start to dance, it’s definitely time to close the laptop and go for a walk.