Mary Ruefle does not own a computer

“If you asked me to email you a poem, I couldn’t.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Louise Bourgeois’s daily routine circa 1980.

Mary Ruefle (b. 1952)

Last month, someone on Twitter shared the Mary Ruefle poem “A Morning Person” (below), and I’ve found myself returning to it several times in the weeks since. My initial reaction to the poem was something like: “Now this is how you write!” And my revisits were like clumsy plundering campaigns: I wanted to see if I could steal some of that tone or voice (I can never remember the difference between tone and voice) for my own writing.

I was so enamored with the poem that for a brief moment I thought of emailing Ruefle and asking if she’d tell me about her writing routine for this newsletter. Navigating to her website’s contact page, I found this:

Surprise! As far as I’m concerned, this is better than an interview—at least, I feel like I get a more direct whiff of Ruefle’s personality than I would via the same-old queries about her writing process and habits.

And yet—it does raise some questions. When I tweeted a screengrab of Ruefle’s contact page, a young writer replied with bafflement over how Ruefle manages to have a celebrated literary career without even owning a computer: “so is she typing her manuscripts at the library?? or on a typewriter?”

Answers were not hard to find: Ruefle has described her writing habits several times in recent years, including how she writes sans computer. She said in 2019: “I write by hand on paper, and then I type the poem on a typewriter and then I pay someone to put it into their computer. If you asked me to email you a poem, I couldn’t, because I’m not hooked up.”

In another interview, Ruefle spoke evocatively about the physical appeal of writing by hand:

I write by hand because that is how I began, and I love it. Moving the wrist, the marks the pencil or pen leave on the paper—like the trail of a snail—well, it is like drawing, no, it is drawing, and I am so enamoured of this activity that sometimes I write continuously without actually forming real words, I call it ‘fake handwriting,’ and it’s just as much fun as actually ‘writing’. By fun I mean it’s just as much a mystery. The whole wrist-moving action is why I write in the first place. I don’t like tennis, or knitting, I like writing with my hands.

(I love the idea that the reason Ruefle began writing in the first place is not because she found herself full of things to say but because she loved “the whole wrist-moving action” of it!)

As for Ruefle’s writing routine—she doesn’t have one. When asked about it in a 2013 interview, she said:

No, I don’t have a routine that I can describe to you. Some days I don’t write at all. Other days I may write three poems. It’s very haphazard, I couldn’t explain it if I tried; there is no explanation for it. I do have a sacred ritual though: I work on erasures for two or three hours every morning. There are days and weeks when I can’t, owing to other responsibilities, and I am always miserable during these periods.

The erasures are a longstanding project of Ruefle’s, in which she goes through old books whiting-out the majority of the text, leaving a few words or lines to stand out, alongside the occasional image, handwritten note, or other insertion. Ruefle has now erased more than 110 books in this manner—and if you happen to be in Vermont, there is currently an exhibition of them at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum at Bennington College until October 31.


From the archives:


Speaking of goals: These Instagram photos from the costumer designer for HBO’s recent Scenes from a Marriage remake—showing her favorite looks for Oscar Isaac’s character—have me wanting to empty my bank account to copy this exact wardrobe, even though I rarely leave the house and live in a city where it’s almost always too hot to wear a sweater, let alone a corduroy jacket and corduroy pants!!

Thanks for reading! This newsletter is free, but if you’d like to help me afford Oscar Isaac’s Scenes from a Marriage wardrobe you can order my Daily Rituals books from Bookshop or (if you must) Amazon.