Sunday, January 4, 2015

Write by Hand: a good look at the old method

There are very few patterns I notice in my writing process. I don't stick to one genre, my stories don't come to me all in the same way. I don't craft the same characters or use the same setting or otherwise follow some mystical set of regulations that make me tick as a writer. We discussed my complete dissimilitude to classic stereotypes back in September with "I'm Not a Real Writer I Guess."  I'm one of those people who thrives on spontaneity, creativity, and impulses. ENFP's, baby. Gotta love us. We don't like being predictable.

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 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:
It is twelve days before Christmas and my true love has given me nothing..."
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:

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.


Abby said...

How interesting. I have also found that sometimes I can write more when writing on paper. Thanks for writing!

Hannah Gridley said...

I used to be a little abashed that my fellow writers would say things like, "Well, I just don't have the time for that..." when I would admit to writing everything out by hand. Almost like they thought I wasn't dedicated enough to my craft to do more than scribble, as though the truly dedicated would scorn all sorts of delays tha tame between them and the finish line. Honestly, though, I do my first edit then, and catch all sorts of things like sentences that change tense in the wrong spots, or ones with strings of adjectives that never arrive at the verb destination.

Imagine how vindicated I felt to read about some scientific study a few years ago wherein they discovered that students write at higher grade levels when essays are written first on paper and then transferred to a computer document. Apparently it has some sort of basis on the type-A versus type-B brain stimuli and is related to the research that shows we recall things better if we read them on paper rather than a screen. :)

Thanks for an interesting post!

Joy said...

I love this post, Rachel. And I am prone to agree with you. Writing by hand is like hearing the music of the words, and pausing to listen, as you take down the notes.


Hannah Joy said...

This post is awesome, and it makes me want to write by hand more often!

Hayden said...

I love the *idea* of writing things out by hand, and I do wish that I could follow through and write out all my manuscripts in such a way.

Almost all my writing has started out on paper; it's just that after a certain point my hands can't take the cramps and my patience can't take the inefficiency, so it's off to the computer I go. I do do all of my story planning on paper, though. That way I can have notes all around me as I type.

Suzannah said...

Oh, interesting. Usually the only stage where I write by hand is when (a) I wake in the night with an idea (which, come to think of it, usually does come complete with a first line, so the opening paragraphs do often get scribbled by hand) or (b) at the planning stage, when I am trying to hammer plots and themes into shape. Something about getting away from the keyboard and grabbing a pen helps me work through plot snarls logically and patiently.

Lady Bibliophile said...

Fascinating article, Rachel, with all the quotes and the artistic process of hand-writing. :) We have so much information pouring daily into our brains, I think the act of taking pen and paper slooooows them down to normal speed, and helps them focus tranquilly on the story at hand.

I wrote my whole current novel by hand because I didn't have enough access to a computer, and then moved it to a computer as soon as I bought my laptop. It is a wonderful creative experience, though frustrating in its slowness. One time when I was badly stuck in edits, I pulled out the old pen and paper again and that helped immensely.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE THIS POST SO MUCH! I think I know which blog post of Anne Elisabeth Stengl's you're talking about, because I remember reading a blog post on her blog mentioning hand writing and then immediately going online to search up a bunch of articles and blog posts about handwriting novels. I really want to try this someday, but it is so overwhelming. That said, I have found that my short stories tend to be much cleaner first drafts when I write them on paper than on the computer, so maybe writing a whole novel on paper will be worth it in the long run. Maybe I'll give it a try with my next WIP.

Rachel Heffington said...

I love how many different methods we have in the comments! Some of you DO write by hand and others have reasons you do not. What fun!
Hayden, like I said, I don't complete entire manuscripts by hand but find it helpful when beginning. :)
And Ana, so pleased to meet you here and that you enjoyed this post! <3

Kelsey Carnes said...

Interesting. So I'm not the only one who does this! I always begin my manuscripts (be they stories, essays, novel chapters, etc.) on paper. Like you said, it helps to get the creative juices flowing; and once that tap is opened and is running pretty surely, it becomes easier to switch to a keyboard for convenience's sake. I wish writing by hand wasn't so time consuming. I would like do that exclusively, as computer screens tire my eyes. Unfortunately, my pen can't keep up with my brain after a time, so I'm forced eventually to move to Microsoft Word. :)

Carmel Elizabeth said...

Yes! Some of my best writing has done by hand. It helps me to know, when I sit down at my computer, that I have some starting place, a handful of words at least, so I don't feel so barren. There's also something very therapeudic about it (to me, at least) that makes me enjoy the process of writing more, and unravells my thoughts slowly and soothingly.

It's also my favorite method for writing in public places. I know few people who can decipher my Quick handwriting, which makes it perfectly discreet and mysterious to passers-by. ;)