In Praise of Pen and Paper

For years, I’ve said that if it wasn’t for computers, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. I say this because I am an abysmal typist. Back when I was in college, writing any kind of paper (or story, or script) was absolute torture for me, because I simply could not make my fat, clumsy fingers go where I wanted them to go on the typewriter keyboard. (Yes, I’m that old).

You dad-blamed kids today don’t know how good you have it. I bought Wite-Out by the case. I spread so much of it on the pages that they’d be all stiff and crackly when I actually turned the paper in. People learned to cover their ears near my room if I was working on a term paper, because I’d be turning the air blue swearing over all the typos I was making.

Then my roommate brought home one of the first Macintosh computers and let me use it. When I started using the computer’s crude (by today’s standards) word processor, it was a revelation. Misspell a word? No worries. Just backspace over it and retype. No messy white stuff, no tiny stiff brush to muck about with. Decide that the third paragraph would work better as the first? No worries. Cut, paste, and there you go. When I entered law school, the school’s computer lab made writing briefs and other papers…well, not easy, but at least tolerable.

So, for years, all my writing was done with keyboard and screen. I usually had some sort of notebook nearby, but that was for jotting down thoughts, ideas, maybe a quick outline of what was coming up in whatever project I was working on. I read that other writers, like Neil Gaiman and Tess Gerritsen, do their first drafts in longhand, and I just shook my head. How tedious, I thought. Why make all that extra work for yourself, since you’re going to have to re-type it all anyway?

Round about the time I was writing STORM SURGE, however, I began experiencing real problems getting things out of my head and onto the virtual page. It seemed like I’d spend hours and have nothing to show for it but a paragraph. It wasn’t writer’s block, exactly, but ut was the next thing to it.

I tried a lot of things: writing in different places, taking long walks, taking long showers, even changing the font to try and jolt myself out of whatever malaise I was experiencing. All of them helped, a little. But the thing that seemed to work best was getting away from the computer altogether and writing in longhand. I’d picked up one of those nifty Moleskine notebooks (after reading that Neil Gaiman swore by them), and, like most people with a cool new possession,  I wanted to use it. As I began composing in longhand, I discovered some advantages of writing that way:

1. The notebook, obviously,  isn’t connected to the Internet. This keeps those pauses to reflect and imagine what comes next from turning into 15 minute sessions of checking e-mail, then checking Twitter, and so on and so forth.

2. When I’m writing in longhand, I don’t keep looking at my word count to see if I’m making my goal for the day. This helps keep me thinking about the scene and letting it develop naturally.

3. Writing on quality paper with a nice pen just feels good. It’s a very sensual experience, much more so that the mechanical rattle and clack of fingers on the keyboard.

4. I haven’t really done a whole lot of research on this, but it seems to me that writing by hand tickles a different creative center of my brain than typing does.

5. Not having the luxury of the backspace key knocks me out of the habit of going back and rewriting a sentence or paragraph, then rewriting, then rewriting again, until it gets to the point where I’ve stopped moving forward altogether. In longhand, as the poet wrote, “the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” If I’m not happy about something, I just go “screw it, I’ll get it in the rewrite.” Writing in longhand gives me permission to suck. Because make no mistake about it: what I write in longhand really sucks. It’s terrible. It’s clumsy, stilted, with word choices that run from the questionable to the laughable. I don’t care. I’m getting stuff on paper, and it’s easy to fix it after I’ve had a day or so to think about it and I’m ready to put it into the computer.

6.  It may seem like a paradox, but because of all of the factors above,  I actually write faster if I write a scene or a chapter twice: once in longhand, then later typing it into the computer.   When it comes time to do the re-typing, I’ve already thought of my revisions, I’ve already decided which way the scene should go (and it may be totally different from the way I wrote it the first time), so I just get on the keyboard and hammer it out. No pauses for reflection (well, not many), no temptation to turn away (well, not much).

I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m writing entire manuscripts in longhand, a la Gaiman, Gerritsen, or Neal Stephenson, who wrote his mammoth Baroque Cycle in longhand on loose paper. Check out what THAT looks like:

Right now, as I said above, I’m doing a chapter, or sometimes a scene, at a time, putting it into the computer at the next session, then back to the notebook for the next bit.  I may get to the point where I divorce myself from the computer entirely for the first draft, but I’m not quite ready for that.  But if you’re wondering what to get me for Christmas…

So, who else writes the first draft by literally taking pen in hand? Who thinks they might like to try it?

One thought on “In Praise of Pen and Paper”

  1. Sometimes we have to change things up, shake ourselves up, to get going again. I love my notebooks too. I use them mostly for brainstorming my outline process… which takes eons for me. I hope you get lots of Moleskines for Christmas, Dusty!

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