Writing by Hand

I set an ambitious writing goal this summer.  Spurred on by my enthusiastic MFA classmates, I decided that I would try to complete a draft of my young adult novel Rebound by August 31.  I think I’m going to make my deadline, but if I’d counted on sitting in front of my computer and banging out words, I wouldn’t even be close.

Earlier this summer, I spent a lot of time typing out sentences that were stiff and dead and altogether wrong and then worrying that I wouldn’t be able to write anything else with any life in it now that I don’t have an advisor to steer me in the right direction anymore.  But then I changed my writing routine and began to make some progress.  I’ve been able to push through several chapters of my novel this month because of a high-tech, super-secret technique, and now I’m going to share it with you!

Except, well, it isn’t high-tech or super-secret at all.  What I’ve been doing is: I write out a scene or two longhand in a notebook, and then the next day I type out what I wrote the day before, editing it a bit as I go, and then I open up my little notebook and start in on the next scene.  That’s it. That’s the system.

I didn’t feel the need to question why this process was working—I was just relieved when my daily writing output began to increase. On some level, I figured it had to do with taking the pressure off.  I know I’m going to take another look at everything I write in my notebook before it ends up in my draft, so I can relax a little and leave a sentence I’m not crazy about in its flawed form rather than agonizing over it.

But when I recently read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the assigned book for middle school teachers at my school, I began to think there might be more to this system than I realized.  One of the points that Nicholas Carr makes throughout this book is that technology impacts how we think.  The map changed the way people perceive geography, the clock changed the way we experience time, and word-processing devices change the kinds of thoughts we commit to the page.

Carr includes quotes from Frederick Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot, who both switched from writing by hand to using a typewriter and then noticed major differences in their work.  When a friend remarked that Nietzsche’s writing had become more concise and more “forceful,” Nietzsche agreed.  “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” he wrote.  T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, shared this observation in a letter: “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon.  Short, staccato, like modern French prose.  The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.”

So maybe there’s a good reason why my sentences don’t sound so stiff when I write them out in my notebook before I transfer them to the computer.  Maybe typing does shape my prose in a way that’s good for structured essays but not always so great for fiction.  It’s not that the sentences I write by hand are longer, like the ones Eliot used to dote upon, but they’re more consistent with my main character’s voice, and I often surprise myself with a word or a gesture that comes to me as my hand moves across the page.

When I’m teaching, I usually feel guilty if my students are working on a writing project and I’m not able to reserve computers for them.  But maybe they’re not really wasting time if they have to write something by hand before typing it up later; maybe they can actually write subtler, more vibrant sentences that way.

How about you?  What tricks get you going when you are blocked, and do you notice any difference between what you write out and what you type?

2 Responses to “Writing by Hand”

  1. skvanzandt

    Hi Laurie,

    Love this post. I write most of my stuff longhand and then transfer to the computer. I find that writing the words by hand increases fluidity of thought. I’m going to check out Carr’s book. Sounds interesting.

    • laurielmorrison

      Thanks for your comment, Sharon! I agree about the fluidity of longhand. And Carr’s book has some really interesting points about the evolution of deep reading, the medium of the book, and all sorts of other topics. It’s not exactly light reading, but I got a lot out of it. Hope you do too!