Writing longhand: Experimenting with analog composition

Craft Lessons

Two decades in journalism taught me how to type. Not always accurately, but quickly. 

It’s a skill that comes in handy, especially when I’m having trouble writing. I can type so fast that I can easily outrace my inner critic that tells me what I’m writing is crap. 

But the other day I decided to make a change in my writing habits after I learned that many modern writers, among them Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Elin Hilderbrand and James Patterson, prefer to draft their work in longhand.

The list is long, the writers an admirable lot.

“I do write by hand a lot, especially first drafts and plotting.” J.K. Rowling.

“I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.” Robert A. Caro.

A friend of mine who’s a film director turned me on to the Blackwing 602. What I like is that it sharpens to a really fine point, and it’s got a great feel to it that I just can’t describe. It’s like when you taste a really good wine or a cognac: You know it’s good stuff.” Andre Dubus  III

“I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers.  I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that.” Susan Sontag.

“Lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.” Vladimir Nabakov

“I write in longhand. I like to see it come back beautifully arranged in type and then hack it up and begin again.” John le Carré

“A pencil is magic; there is the feeling that anything can be fixed, just look at the eraser right there at the top, ready to undue whatever might need to be whisked away.” Michele Filgate

I’m nowhere near their league, but I decided to give it a try. Not just as a novelty after years of digital composition, but because I also discovered that science shows that pen in hand can be good for the brain. 

“There is a new body of science showing handwriting is good for us when it comes to learning,” according to Gwendolyn Bounds of The Wall Street Journal.  

Some physicians even believe it can even help aging Baby Boomers improve their minds and keep them sharp.” 

That’s because sequential finger movements activate large areas of the brain linked to thinking, language and working memory, MRI imagery showed. 

Definitely a plus for this Boomer.

My analog experiment started with a ballpoint pen and a blank notebook page.

 At first, the going was slow. It took 38 words to warm up before the short story I’ve been working on grabbed my pen’s attention. I wrote another 115 words, much faster than if I was banging away on my keyboard. 

And that’s the point, longhand aficionados believe.

“It made me slow down because it takes a long time” said Stephen King who wrote his novel “Dreamcatcher” in longhand, discussing his approach in a Paris Review interview

“I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand,” King said. “But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.

I didn’t do it long enough to produce a scholar’s bump on my finger, but another physical problem soon surfaced: writer’s cramp or dystonia, the scientific term for involuntary muscular contractions. commonly known as writer’s cramp. (Musicians and golfers call them the “yips.”).

 I took a break and the mild symptoms faded. 

I found the going easier when I put my pen down and switched to a sharp number two pencil. My pace was faster than with the pen, but I was more careful with my word choice.

My penmanship improved and deleting my mistakes required nothing more than a few swipes of the eraser. Cramping aside, the advantages of longhand began to pile up, as those who chose longhand writing have observed

“I don’t have to wait for my pen to boot up. I can write in any coffee shop, airport, plane, bus terminal, bus, beach and park, and never worry about recharging or power outlets, Michael Cahlin recounted in The Writer,

Besides the tactile pleasure of writing by hand, I noticed another salutary benefit. 

Focusing on every word, I avoid one of my biggest time wasters: surfing the Web as a method of procrastination. 

With my notebook open and my laptop closed, I felt no urge to turn to Google or news sites. 

Analog shuts out digital distractions. 

 “You never get distracted trying to send a tweet from a notebook,” novelist Joe Hill said. “A notebook never pings you with an email.

I found I also agreed with the British writer Niven Govinden who prefers a pen to pencil and enjoys the “greater sense of space. 

“But most importantly, I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters.”

Even so, after my brief experiment going Old School, I find it hard to believe that someone could draft an entire novel, or in Caro’s case, 1,000-page biographies, with a pencil. 

But maybe there’s something more to learn about the practice of writing longhand. I’ll just have to sharpen my pencil and give it another try.  I had to remind myself that, over nearly five decades as a professional writer, how, even on a tight deadline, often turning to a blank page and pen pushed me past a lead stuck in neutral and helped me break the block for narrative passages that were going nowhere. Recharged I could return to my computer.

And now I know what I want for my birthday: a box of Blackwing 602s.

Photograph by Angelina Litvin courtesy of unsplash.com

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