I was cleaning my house on the second day of this new year, putting away Christmas, trying to scrub toilets, finding that my older (yes, older) brother had flushed a ball down the toilet by accident and that's why it wasn't exactly an opportune moment to clean the toilets just then, putting a sign on the bathroom door so no one else would make the discovery...you get the picture. The house was in disarray, the January day and myself were looking like one hot mess of seventy degrees and Pine-Sol. I moved a stack of papers to the stairs, intending to take it up with me when I had gathered my courage enough to tackle the project of my bedroom which I'd left in rather a state the day before after primping for the annual Civil War Charity Ball. Shifting the papers aside, curious to see which letter I had forgotten to finish and send off this time, the words on the first page caught my eye:
"Dear Mavis:So it was a letter--many actually. The first several days of John Out-the-Window shifted under the acres of mess since I first began the project and transferred it to the computer to share with you. Then a ray of light shone through the dust motes I'd stirred up while shuffling papers and sweeping old Christmas tree needles and I recognized the one component shared by every successful story I've written:
It is twelve days before Christmas and my true love has given me nothing..."
They all began on paper.
On the heels of this thought came the recollection of something author Anne Elisabeth Stengl said recently in a blog post about the fluidness and lucidity of things written by hand. She mentioned being able to tell if something had its humble beginnings with pen and paper strictly by its tone. Anon, Sir, Anon began as a scrawl in my purple hodge-podge journal. Fly Away Home began on a yellow legal pad, I believe. John Out-the-Window and many a piece of well-received flash fiction also started old-school. Even Cottleston Pie has its origins in flattened wood pulp and ink. The stories that have not begun on paper have not gone far. At all. What is there about a pen and paper that inspires me more than a bald page of Microsoft Word? And why does the act of writing my words long-hand insure their success?
Unsure what the deal was with this phenomenon and calling to mind long-past mentions of famous authors who insist on writing their first drafts by hand, I did a little research. One common theme suggested was the obvious fact that when you are not on an electronic device, your chances of being distracted by web-browsing, Facebook, Pinterest, or emails is majorly minimized. If you've silence your phone and put it across the room and your laptop is powered down, you won't be trying to hold (very interesting) chats with a writing friend about character development, update your best friend on what happened over the weekend, research mid-winter temperatures in the South Island of New Zealand, and re-tweet your own blog post and seven others, while very contentedly hashtagging "#amwriting" when you are, in reality, doing everything but #amwriting. And then there were deeper, more philosophical/biological reasons. In an article at Writing Corner, Mia Zachary hypothesizes:
"Hand writing compels you to move forward across an entire connected gesture and integrates three distinct brain processes: visual, motor, and cognitive. Writing by hand requires executing sequential finger movements that activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory--the mind's system for temporarily storing and managing small pieces of information."She finishes her article with a quote by Stephen King that sums up my experience with at least beginning first drafts by hand:
"Writing longhand...brought the act of writing back to this very basic level, where you actually have to take something in your fist and make the letters on the page...It slows you down. It makes you think about each word as you write it, and it also gives you more of a chance so that you're able--the sentences compose themselves in your head. It's like hearing music, only it's words. But you see more ahead because you can't go fast."I identify with the concept of hearing it like music. "...the sentences compose themselves in your head." My brain runs ahead of what my hands are capable of writing and because my hand is flying to keep up, the theme flows. I can't delete what I've written. I can scratch it out but it will still be there, a theme explored further by Sarah Selecky in her article, "Why You Should Write by Hand." Now, Selecky takes a bit more of a mystical approach to her reasoning, saying that as you are writing that first draft you are, "...divining your story as you go, you need these markers to guide your subconscious. They are your material! Taking them away is cruel..."
Her second point is the one that I believe is the main answer for me:
"To your brain, writing by hand feels more like making art."I believe the act of physically writing something down versus typing it into a sterile page of a Google Drive document does tap into a piece of my brain that is not otherwise brought into the picture. I enjoy creating art. I do typography, watercolor painting, sketching, and drawing. Sometimes I fiddle around with clay or acrylics on canvas. It's a creative release and lets me rest the verbally creative part of my brain that blinks at a computer screen and summons words from thin air. But when I put a pen to paper, I am drawing and creating and tangibly making art with my words. It's a beautiful feeling, and freeing. Even if I'm not writing as quickly as I would on a keyboard, I have a physical sensation of the words flying out of me, following my rampant cursive letters following a vague idea that I must hunt behind or lose forever. Selecky suggests this exercise:
Try this: on a blank piece of paper, write a list of words that start with the letter “B.” Write the words very slowly, as they come to you. Print them in all capital letters, or make your cursive ribbon-like, as though you were a calligraphist. Line them up one under the other to make a word tower. Continue to play with the shapes of your letters as you write the words. Experience the peaceful, exciting bloom of creativity as it floods your right hemisphere. You’re working with language, yes, but you’re also playing, you’re drawing.In general, my opinion of hand-writing manuscripts has aligned with the (temporarily) immortal words of Sweet Brown:
"Ain't nobody got time fo' dat!"
At many times, writing by hand is inefficient. I might write for twenty minutes and get only half of what I'd have if I'd sat at my keyboard and typed. My hand cramps. It was not for nothing that a monk scrawled in the margins of an illuminated manuscript: "Oh, my hand!" If I'm pushing for word count, writing long-hand frustrates that goal. So when I start a story, I generally only write by hand long enough for the story to get rolling, my mind to leap far ahead of the cursive letters pelting after it, and the coals to be stoked around my imagination. At this point, I transfer to the computer and continue in peace.
Now that I've recognized this pattern in my work, I think I'll respect it. I also am willing to bet that if I reach a point in the story where I'm stuck, a return to the Write by Hand method might just be the kick in the pants I need to get it on its feet once more.