When it comes to creative writing it matters how we write.
Most modern writers, it would seem, knock their drafts out tapping onto a computer keyboard, almost at the speed of thought. The improved keyboards of today’s machines make this experience nearly soundless. There is a swift conveyance of thought to screen that seems to be almost simultaneous for some. The convenience and speed of computer input makes it seem like a no-brainer. I do most of my writing this way. But writing hasn’t always been this way.
When I get stuck, I reach for my notebook. There is something about the process of putting ink on paper that changes the way we think. Some psychologists have suggested there might be a link between using two hands (a keyboard) and the one needed when writing longhand.
But that can’t be the whole story. There is a spatial element involved when writing by hand as well. I use pen writing most often when I’m working something out creatively, perhaps it’s a plot or a character arc. I often don’t just write straight across the page, line after line. I may write a note in the margin, and then I’ll draw a line from that connecting it to another thought on the other side of the page. There’s a kinetic energy to making work this way.
There have been times where I yearn to work on bigger and bigger pieces of paper. Someday, I plan to turn one whole wall of my study into a whiteboard so that I can map out my next labyrinthine novel plot. On second thought, perhaps I should turn the floor into one big rolling butcher sheet (paper is always better).
In Lee Rourke’s article in the Guardian on this subject, he quotes writer Alex Preston: “…watching the imprint of pen on page reminds us that writing is a craft. If everything is done on keyboards and fibre-optic wires, we may as well be writing shopping lists or investment reports.”1
Neil Gaiman has spoken publicly at length about his fondness for writing with a fountain pen (because, of course, Gaiman does). As he told the BBC, “I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”2
I also really like what Jon McGregor said (also from Lee Rourke’s article): “An idea or phrase can be grabbed and worked at while it’s fresh. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved, and can be looked over and reconsidered. Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral – a sentence deleted can’t be reconsidered.”1
Exactly! When we write creatively, the subconscious is telling us something. Even though those first words on the page may not be the best, they are important, critical even. Even if you’ve scratched through them, they still exist on paper, hinting at something else, some deeper force at work.
Other writers favor the pencil. And some still, the typewriter. Although I own a few manual typewriters (how they do warm the cockles of my heart), I’ve not really tried seriously writing on them. But poet and professor James Ragan once told me that he wrote all of his poems on the typewriter. There’s certainly a physicality involved with working on a manual typewriter that’s non-existent with a computer keyboard. You have to work at it. There is a physical exercise to getting something out of your head, with the body is engaged, that’s not really present in any other method of writing. Chiseling at a stone tablet, perhaps?
Different words and ideas are possible when you write in a college-ruled notebook versus writing on an unlined page, or on a napkin even. Are you writing with a gel ink pen or a ball point pen? All of these tangible factors affect how your hand moves, the energy of the stroke, the movement of the eye, the mood of the writer even.
I like to imagine the muscles in the hand directly connected by nerves to the brain, and at least some of those links are to the creative centers of the mind. By scratching the page, we jerk the strings of the imagination puppet, the strands that weave through our subconscious.