By the time I got to college, my once-impeccable handwriting was barely readable. Typewriters were a blessing, even before I learned to touch-type. Computers were even better. I got my first PC in 1985. I fell in love with WordPerfect. I did all my writing on the computer. Then I’d print it out, edit in pen or pencil, type in my edits, and print it out again.
I wrote my novel, The Mud of the Place, on the computer. Mud was a five-year journey punctuated with stalls, stops, and detours — every kind of block you can imagine. I’d stare at those crisp words on the screen and have no idea what came next. Pretty soon the stall would turn into a downward spiral and I’d know for absolute sure that I was never going to finish the stupid thing.
Around that time I was one of several women writers who gathered from time to time to share writing and talk about writing. Each meeting we’d do at least one freewriting exercise. We took turns picking a word or phrase to start with and setting a time limit, usually 10 or 15 minutes. When the timer went off, you didn’t have to read what you’d written aloud, but we almost always did.
I was continually astonished by what I could write in 10 or 15 minutes with only a ballpoint pen and a few sheets of lined paper.
Finally I put it together. When I stalled at the computer, I’d stuff a yellow pad and a couple of ballpoints into my backpack and go somewhere else. In good weather this might be just outside. Other times it might be the Get a Life Café in Vineyard Haven. The key was away from the computer.
My key phrase was usually something like “I can’t write this fucking scene because …” And before I ran out of steam, I would have written, or at least sketched, the fucking scene whose elusiveness had been frustrating me so.
Gradually I figured out that scenes often stalled because I didn’t know a character well enough or, especially, because I couldn’t visualize where the scene was taking place. So before I got to the hair-tearing stage, I’d take pen and yellow pad and let the character talk. Characters, I discovered, were often good at describing places that I couldn’t see.
After finishing The Mud of the Place, I went into a tailspin. What pulled me out was Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook. I bought myself a fountain pen and a bottle of green ink to write my “Morning Pages,” the daily freewriting that is the foundation of Cameron’s method. Writing in longhand, I began to see, could be more than a method of diagnosing and solving problems.
For years now I’ve been doing nearly all my first-drafting in longhand, for both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve got more fountain pens and more bottles of ink than anyone needs, but currently six pens, each filled with a different color ink, are in active use.
Why does it work? For me writing in longhand makes it much, much easier to bypass the internal editor and just write. My handwriting is messy enough to flummox the internal editor but legible enough that I can transcribe it into the computer, which is where I do all my editing, revising, and rewriting. And — not to stray too far into woo-woo territory or anything — words seem to flow more easily through my fingers to a piece of paper than they do through my fingers to a keyboard.
The moral of the story isn’t that pen-and-ink rules. It’s that tools matter. If one isn’t doing the trick, try another one. I haven’t tried a tape recorder yet, but I do read aloud a lot both when I’m writing and when I’m editing, so that may be next.