Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Allure of Writing Longhand

It’s safe to assume that if Thomas Jefferson had a laptop, we’d never have seen the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. If Charles Dickens had a novel-writing program like Scrivener, we’d likely have more Dickens books to read and, possibly, the actual ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. If Erle Stanley Gardner had any of the speech-recognition software available to him, he’d likely have dictated his Perry Mason novels directly into his computer rather than his dictaphone. And I don’t want to even consider how many more Doc Savage novels Lester Dent could have written if he had a Mac considering he wrote a novel a month for years with only a typewriter.

Technology and the advent of the personal computer and word processing programs have flat-out made it easier to write. We have software programs that put our words in the exact, proper format. We have devices that enable us to enter words in a variety of ways not just the keyboard. Heck, we have authors in Japan who write their cellphone novels...on cellphones.

With all of this technology, then, why do so many of us writers cherish writing longhand? This month, I’m lugging my PowerBook everywhere I go so that I’ll have it with me and I can write whenever the mood--or time--strikes. It’s a fun habit, I’ll admit, and I’m doing it because I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month. It’s the fastest way to get words down.

Honestly, however, if the self-imposed word count deadline was not staring me in the face, I’d write many of my pieces of fiction in longhand first and transfer to a software program later. I’ve done it in the past and I enjoy that first “edit” as I type in the words I wrote. The completed, transcribed material is tighter and better once I give it that first edit.

Back to the question at hand: why do folks enjoy writing longhand? I enjoy the simplicity, the minimal aspect of writing with pen and paper. The slower speed allows me to ponder the next word for a few more milliseconds than I get to when typing. I often longhand write the better word rather than the first word that enters my brain. As I’m blazing away at NaNoWriMo, I’m not editing but I am making mental notes, knowing I’ll go back and fix up sentences later. With slower, handwriting, I’d likely pick the better word from the get-go.

I love the scratch, scratch of pen nib on paper. There’s a quote from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: “Scratching is what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you.” She’s referring to improvisation in being creative. The funny thing is for us writers, we can actually scratch.

There’s an ironic answer to my question: writer’s choose to write longhand in order to get us in the mind of our writing forebears. We like to think our ink-stained fingers get us closer to Dickens or Poe or Doyle. The irony is, had they been able to use our technology, Mr. Dickens, Poe, or Doyle would have chucked their ink stands and pens without thinking twice.

How do you like to write? If you write longhand, why?

12 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I hate writing longhand and find little romance in it. Besides, it takes me forever to get a story out as it is. I'm considering going the Luke Short route and dictate to a secretary my great American novel as it comes to me. But how much would you pay by the hour for that?

James Reasoner said...

My first two novels and many short stories were first-drafted in longhand, in spiral notebooks using a fountain pen. I found that I could turn out material fairly fast that way, but now I only write notes to myself and the occasional outline in longhand. I'd never go back to it for writing novels, although sometimes I'm tempted when my eyes hurt from looking at the computer screen too much.

Loyd said...

I like writing notes and outlines longhand. There is a different feeling to writing this way. I find it easier than using a computer, although drafts are much better on the computer. Notepads are easier to carry around and do impromptu writing with,

Mike Dennis said...

Back before I had a computer, when I first sat down to write a novel, I wrote it longhand, with plain white paper from Walgreen's and a box of pencils. Oh, and one of those pencil sharpeners that's about one inch square which you have to hold over the wastebasket to drop the shavings. It was about one step up from chiseling on granite.

I wrote a second novel that way, too, before I finally discovered the ease of a computer. But I will say this: the experience of writing two (long) novels in this fashion has shown me that longhand brings you closer to your characters. I don't know how else to say it.

I'm giving serious consideration to trying it for my next novel.

Scott Parker said...

David - I'll admit that carrying around my Powerbook is nice. I can get the words down within my lunch hour and have them ready to edit. I've purchased MacSpeech Dictate but it's not 100% effective. But I really like the idea of dictating a story or novel. I'm going to keep plugging away at it.

James - I would think that, with the amount of words you produce per year, writing longhand wouldn't work for you nowadays. Going back to the speech recognition thread, if you use Windows products, I've heard that Dragon Talk (?) Naturally is the best out there. You could always try it and merely close your tired eyes.

Loyd - I carry around a Moleskin notebook so, when inspiration strikes, I'm ready.

Mike - Ironically, I think you're correct about getting closer to characters. When I wrote my first novel, I took only pen and paper with me on vacation. Those chapters I wrote are among my favorites because certain character traits emerged out of the ink that may not have emerged out of bytes on a screen. I always edit in hard copy. Then, when I'm making my changes, I can alter yet again, if necessary.

Loyd said...

One thing I would like to add. Computers don't make a person's brain work better or faster. Some of what you said about authors producing more would not apply. Especially in the case of Erle Stanley Gardner. What is the difference between a computer speech recognition and having someone else typing up your dictation in terms of composing and output?

Graham Powell said...

I write longhand when I'm stuck or having a hard time getting started. Just seems to break the logjam. Longhand is somehow less permanent and I don't worry about if it's good enough.

Dana King said...

Graham beat me to this. I resort to longhand when I'm stuck, or to draft a thought diagram of something short, like a review or short/flash story.

I'm able to get some of the benefits of writing longhand expressed elsewhere--that usually involve a slower pace--because I'm such a lousy typist. Longhand's barely slower for me.

Chris said...

Put me down with the crowd who writes on the computer, but keeps notes and little bits and pieces of ideas and even scenes in a notebook in longhand. I think because I have to do so much writing as part of my day job, doing my novel (and the nonfiction stuff I do) on the computer is just more comfortable because that is what I'm accustomed to. It is the longhand writing that feels foreign because I do so little of it.

I do print my first draft out as I go, and edit longhand before going back to the computer.

Steve Weddle said...

If you use a computer to write a novel, where do you put your notes?
Longhand in a notebook allows me to write something and mark it up as I go, filling the right-hand page with text and the facing page with notes.

JD Rhoades said...

There are a few good things about a notebook:

1)It isn't connected to the Internet. there's nothing to do on it but write.

2) I'm less tempted to go back and rewrite the same over and over. I have no choice but to plow through and go "fuck it, I'll catch it in the second draft."

3) It's easier to use outdoors in the sunlight.

4) You don't freak out if you drop it on the ground.

All that said, like Graham and Dana, I still tend to only do longhand when I'm stuck. Like now. I really like Steve's idea of writing on one page with notes on the facing one.

Jay Stringer said...

I've always got my notebook on me. And I scribble often, notes, lyrics, political rants. I often make a few bullet point notes about the manucsript I'm working on.

I'm struck with many of the same ideas I love the romance of longhand, the ink on a fresh page, the noise.

But I'm dyslexic, and my brain just doesn't write longhand. It's not just an issue of reading back my handwriting -fun though that is- it's just not the way my brain works.

Back I was learning to video edit I learned the equivalent of long hand. Linear editing, tape to tape, get it right it don't get it. It was great for my learning of narrative and forward thinkng. But what really worked for me was the advent of non-linear editing, the freedom to move around on the timeline as needed, to change things no matter where in the narrative they are, and to keep going back over old ground until you're happy. So a first draft bacame the equivalent of three drafts.

I love long hand writing, but it just doesn't serve me, unfortunatley.