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Culture

[Notes] My type

A few words about fonts

Scott Dickensheets

A few weeks ago, I wrote a thousand words for a local magazine. Not atypically, I was still working and reworking it many long days beyond deadline. I don’t mean detail work, either, but real deep-tissue stuff. I just couldn’t rescue it from dire suckitude. After I dropped it into the editor’s lap and fled like a doorbell prankster, I slouched into the publisher’s office and groaned, “I’ve totally forgotten how to write.”

Here’s the thing: A few days later, they showed me the layout. Seeing my blab and scribble in the magazine’s official typeface, column width and line-spacing—well, I hated the thing a little less. It looked real, professional. Its arthritic transitions now seemed acceptably limber; ideas that, in the manuscript, plunged beneath the prose like subterranean streams were, in fact, right there on the surface. Which isn’t to say I like what I’ve written—I dream of the day that happens—but I was suddenly okayer with having my byline on it.

Presentation matters, is what I’m saying, even at such a micro level. More than it should, probably. Font-switching is one of my tricks for overcoming writer’s block—I toggle between Tahoma, when I’m in a sans-serif mood, and Georgia, with occasional forays into Palatino (when I’m aiming for high cleverness in the old Spy mode) or Garamond (for the down and the dirty). Often, in those transitions, something like a weather-change happens: clouds lift, the light changes, temps rise or fall. The difference is often enough to jar my sticky brain loose. By such tiny means is another paragraph extruded.

Even so, it never really coheres for me until I see it in its final publication typeface.

Back in May, Slate asked a few writers what font they composed in. Not surprisingly, I suppose, Courier and Courier New—both typewriter fonts—were the most common picks. For some, such as Jonathan Lethem and Nicholson Baker, it had to do with typewriter nostalgia and the associated romance of being a writer. But thriller novelist Andrew Vachss, another Courier guy, cut through all that: “It’s the least pretentious, so the writing has to stand (or not) on its own.”

Well, sure, that sounds right. The words should transcend the typeface they’re written in. Still: Writing—at least for me, but I assume also for many of the lordly talents dwelling in the mists farther up Mt. Olympus—is a weird voodoo amalgam of keyboard discipline, inner ear, a pile of notes, Diet Coke and provisional inspirations vectoring in from who knows where. It’s a process unusually open to the butterfly effect; a bug flaps its wings in Burma and I go with first-person ironic instead of third-person detached. In that context, font choice is just another way the muse sends in the plays.

In fact, I finished this squib in record time, once I discovered Intersection—stately, graceful, yet not above having a little fun—among my font choices. A few more and I may remember how to write after all.

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