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?

Commonplace Books: A Tool for Writers and Teachers

As I’m gearing up for the school year to begin, I’ve been doing my summer reading assignments.  First, I read Moying Li’s Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution, which is required reading for rising seventh and eighth graders, and then I slowly made my way through the required reading for middle school teachers: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

On the surface, these two books don’t have much in common.  The first is a memoir written primarily for young readers; the second is an academic tome that touches on the history of technology, the evolution of reading and memory, and the science of the human brain.  But I found a surprising point of connection between the two: the idea of commonplace books.

In Snow Falling in Spring, Moying Li’s education has been disrupted by political chaos.  She’s seen her teachers and relatives tortured, and she’s had to give up her dream of pursuing higher education to perform the job she’s been assigned.  Amidst all this chaos, she finds comfort by waking up at dawn each day to walk around a park while reading out loud from a makeshift textbook.  Because she no longer has regular access to books, she has to be creative if she wants to continue her learning.  She explains, “I made up my own textbook with loose-leaf papers—filled with passages copied from my favorite authors.”

In The Shallows, in a chapter about memory, Nicholas Carr describes commonplace books, which sound a lot like Moying Li’s makeshift textbook.  The Dutch humanist Erasmus proposed the idea of commonplace books in 1512.  He encouraged students to keep a notebook, divided by subject, and copy out striking passages from their reading.  He thought of these passages as “kinds of flowers,” picked from books and then cultivated in an individual’s memory.  (How lovely is that?)  These “commonplace” notebooks allowed students to individualize their education, because each person’s notebook was unique, and they helped students to synthesize what they’d learned.

I sometimes copy out quotes from books I read, but rarely in the same place, and I often incorporate my own commentary, too.  But I like the idea of a physical notebook, divided into sections, in which I could pull together ideas, beautiful language, and maybe even photographs or photocopied images from different sources (or sketches, if I were at all artistic).  I might have a section for craft books, a section for teaching ideas, and a section for fiction, but other people could have very different sections in their commonplace books.  I’m not sure I trust myself to walk while reading, as Moying Li did, and I’d be a little embarrassed to have people hear me reading aloud to myself while strolling even if I could stay on my feet.  But I might like to read through my commonplace book before taking a meditative walk, and I like the idea of encouraging students today to make their own commonplace notebooks, just as their Renaissance counterparts once did.

What do you think?  How could you see using commonplace books with students, or how might you set up your own? (Also, thanks to my friend and colleague Dan for telling me about commonplace books in the first place, so that I paid extra attention to them while doing my summer reading homework.)

Literary Meat or Poison?

A little over a year ago, I read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, which was published in 1934 but still feels timely. There are many things I appreciate about this book (and if you’d like you can access the full text of it here), but I especially love the frank and funny life advice Brande offers.

In one of my favorite parts, Brande insists that if you are serious about writing, you must structure your recreation time in a way that feeds your writing.  That means that you can’t spend too much time with people who leave you feeling discouraged or creatively dried up, and you have to read things that stimulate your writing.  She explains that she’s known people who are inspired to write after reading dry medical reports, scientific magazines they can’t understand, or novels they dislike, but who are paralyzed by reading the works of authors they admire.  “Watch for a while,” she instructs, “and see which authors are your meat and which are your poison.”  I suppose that advice doesn’t work so well for vegetarians, but you get the idea.

I’ve been thinking about my literary “meat” and “poison.”  Recently, two novels spurred on my writing in a way that others haven’t, and they happened to be written by the same author.  I was completely charged up to get back to work after reading Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour and Second Chance Summer.  In both books, I saw Matson doing things I was trying to do, such as exposing a flaw that the main character has to overcome and showing how two people come to know and care about each other in a short time.  Seeing how Matson accomplished these things gave me these zinging realizations about how I could accomplish them in my book.  Plot-wise, I’ve found myself psyched up to write after reading Kate Messner’s middle grade novels The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and Sugar and Ice because I get this sense that Messner doesn’t get in her own way—she sets up a dynamic situation and lets it unfold, and that makes the process of structuring a novel feel manageable to me.

(The only problem is, if I let myself think about how Messner has been able to teach middle school English, be a parent, keep a blog going, and crank out book after book, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and inadequate, and she becomes my poison instead of my meat.  So I am excited to read her new book Capture the Flag, but I will be sure to read it when I am feeling especially secure.)

How about you?  Which authors are your meat and which are your poison?

Top Fives

As you’ve probably seen, NPR recently compiled a list of the top 100 best-ever teen novels.  NPR came up with this list after inviting people to nominate YA novels and then select their top ten from the nominations.  The list has generated plenty of controversy—for instance, some people have objected to the imprecise criteria NPR used to decide what does and does not count as a YA novel, and others were disappointed that their favorite authors didn’t make the cut. (ETA: Laurie Halse Anderson raised another legitimate concern with the list in this blog entry: the lack of diversity.)

Personally, I appreciated the blend of classics and recent novels on the final list, and I think it will be fun to share with my students.  I’m glad it exists as a jumping-off point for reflection and conversation, but I understand people’s concerns and have one of my own.

My big question is, how do you define a “top” book?  Does that mean a personal favorite, or does it imply some level of literary merit?

I did vote on my top 10 for NPR, but I found it difficult to choose because I kept blurring the criteria.  I’d think, “Oh, this book was formative for me, so it should be there.  But is it actually any good?”  Or, “I really admire this novel…but it took me two weeks to slog through.  Is it honest to give it a spot in my top 10 over a book I love, even though I can find fault with aspects of the writing?”

In my last packet of work for my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, my advisor asked me to do something similar to what NPR asked.  She asked me to decide on my top-five books I’d read in the program in addition to the top-five books for young readers I thought everyone should read.

I liked the distinction she made between those two categories; I could feel okay about deferring to my personal preference in the first category since I was going to attempt to be more objective in the second.  Plus, the context of her question helped me.  I was thinking of my top-five books I’d read as I was studying the craft of writing, so I should give some consideration to how much a given book inspired my own or other authors’ writing.  In the second category, top five books for everyone, I chose books based not only on their literary merits but also based on the reflection and discussions I think they encourage.  (The Alexie book, for instance, made my list after my students read it because it generated such interesting discussion.  I included Khan’s book because it challenged my own ideas of what a picture book should be, and because it facilitates discussions of identity, family, and culture for all different ages.)

So here are my two top-five lists. They are certainly subjective, but I feel more comfortable with my choices here than when I picked my top-10 YA books for NPR because I was clearer about my own criteria.

My personal top five:
Lockhart, E. The Boyfriend List Series.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Marchetta, Melina. Saving Francesca.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables.
Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Year of Secret Assignments.

Top five books for young readers that every human should read:
Alexie, Sherman.The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Khan, Ruksana. The Big Red Lollipop. Illus. Sophia Blackall.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia.