Pens, Keyboards & Typewriters: How the Physicality of Creative Writing Affects the Psychological

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.

 

1 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/03/creative-writing-better-pen-longhand

2 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18071830

FreeWrite Combines Electronic Advantage With Old World, Distraction-Free Simplicity

I’ve been following this interesting product called the FreeWrite since they put it up on Kickstarter. In a nutshell, the FreeWrite is a distraction-free writing tool. Astrohaus, the company that makes the FreeWrite, ran a sweepstakes over the holidays. And I actually won the sweepstakes. No really. Out of over 12,000 entries, they selected my name. So needless to say, I was excited to try out this innovative piece of hardware.

They managed to ship the machine to me in under a week. I received it just after Christmas. The FreeWrite looks a bit like those old word processors that were on the market just before personal computers became popular. I had a Smith Corona version in college for a few years. But it’s so much more (and less).

This machine uses an eInk screen to show your content. It uses pleasing mechanical-style keys for input and has very little in the way of interface other than the basic keyboard layout. While it does connect to wireless Internet, it’s only purpose for doing so is to upload what you’re writing to a file folder in the cloud (such as DropBox). This tool is only for writing. No editing. You can’t even cursor backward in your text. You just write. You don’t check Facebook, or your stocks, or watch YouTube. You just write.

I’ve already knocked out half a short story on the FreeWrite, and I have to say, I enjoyed the experience. It’s a little strange not being able to go back in your text, so that will take a little getting used to. But I’ve developed a notation, as such when I think of something to add, I just put it in brackets. Later, when editing, I’ll know to grab those added bits and re-insert them elsewhere.

But seriously, I think the power of free-flowing writing with no real distractions, writing that is miraculously saved elsewhere the instant you type it – I don’t think that magic can be underestimated.

Wired calls it “a blank piece of e-paper.” And that’s exactly it. Such an elegant description, so apt, and there is great power in that simple idea.

I’ve read a few reviews of the FreeWrite online that don’t seem to get what it is. Look, if you have no need for a “distraction-free writing tool,” that’s fine. It’s a niche need. But just because I still have both legs doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing scathing reviews of every prosthetic leg product I can find.

In all fairness to struggling writers out there, the current price tag might be considered high. And I was oh-so-fortunate enough to get mine for free (so grateful, this is me being grateful). Clearly, the cost per machine is driven by the FreeWrite’s high-quality materials (aluminum body, eInk screen and Cherry MX keyboard), which I definitely appreciate. But that aside, I wholly recommend the FreeWrite, and I think there’s hope that if the FreeWrite catches on within the writer community – and why wouldn’t it – that price could come down some in the future.

On its website, Astrohaus claims the FreeWrite will double your hourly word count. I can’t help but believe it.

Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare

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As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

How Not to Handle Returning from a Writing Hiatus

Writing After a HiatusUpon the times that I’ve returned to writing from a longer hiatus, I’ve exhibited the following, possibly unhealthy, pattern.

  1. Get story spark from divine events.* Hastily jot down notes on character and plot. Start writing.
  2. After two to four weeks, encounter the inevitable snarl. The writing is bogged down, going nowhere fast. Spend a session or two alternating between unsnarling, writing new scenes, destroying old ones, and beating head on desk.
  3. Step back and realize I failed while crafting original story outline, failed to think through motivations , sub-plots and things of this rudimentary ilk.
  4. Get disgusted with story. Start a new story, learning from my mistakes.
  5. Get it right. Pen masterpiece?

As experienced writers understand, momentum plays an enormous role in bringing about good writing. It keeps you on the edge of your game, thinking through all the elements of story a good writer needs to be thinking about. Remembering what you did in the last book, or last week, comparing it to what you just read, and so on. You’re in the zone of your craft, as it were.

If I take a break, then several of those perceptions and skills, some of the subtle, tend to shake loose and become misplaced. If I take a break, I need a practice round, something expendable. Or at least it becomes expendable in the process. I’ve never planned this, but looking back, I’ve recreated this pattern several times. You would think I would see it coming. No matter, it’s still something I have to do. The price I pay for taking a break. I should know better.

*And by divine, I mean mundane.

Writing Rituals and Other Forms of Wizardry

Writers have their rituals, don’t they? They have to have their cup of tea, or their blue Bic, or their yellow notepad, or their time of day, or they must be facing West.

I have fewer rituals than I once did. Now that I’m a parent, they’ve dwindled to simple ones like don’t-talk-to-me and can-we-not-scream-right-now. I also prefer to have a window or a big space in front of me (because I read something about it in a feng shui book once and it’s worked for me since).

I believe the writer’s rituals are important though, for two basic reasons.

First, we’re creating the circumstances for success by enforcing a kind of discipline, albeit one that is hiding behind superstition. Because ritual puts us into a routine, which in turn triggers our mind to say, “Okay, we’re in writer mode now, so the rest of you distracting thoughts clear out.” Like any habit, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

But second, this ritual is a kind of magic. Writing is an activity unlike virtually any other. To function in society, we have to wire our brains to speak to us in certain ways. There are certain logic connections we have to make, so that when we interact with others, everybody is on the same page. For example, if you tell me you’re ready to get out of here, I can infer you mean out of our immediate vicinity. I’m making a logical deduction based on context and past experience that you don’t mean the country or the planet. But, in writing, that kind of logic often hinders us whether we realize it or not. Our minds make enormous leaps between unlike objects to create things that are new and fresh and interesting. To harness that power we need a bit of magic. We need to believe in a little super power to craft strange new worlds. And if ritual can bring the lightning down, then by all means, wear the fuzzy Snoopy slippers that you keep tucked in a wooden box in the closet for just such an earth-rattling occasion.

Pace Setting for Writers

As I come up on 250 pages in my novel, I’ve been pondering the importance of pace in writing. The closer to the end of the narrative I come, the more anxious I become, and I sometimes fear that I write too quickly. I used to not dwell on this. You write at the speed you write, right?

Years of practice have shown me this isn’t so. I’ve learned that slowing myself down a little can help the quality of the work. Slow enough that I consider how the language is fitting together. Word choices, symbolism, character motivations, all of these background components get a little more screen time in my writing brain. It’s important to not go so slow that you lose your emotional momentum. That is probably more disastrous than the alternative. But pulling back a little, I’ve learned, makes everything shine a little more.

Writing as Ritual

I think there’s a little mysticism in every good writing process. The little tics and superstitions that we pursue that help us enter that proper state for ultimate wordsmithing. The act of creative writing involves a bit of tearing into our subconscious, and it’s very unlike mentally painless processes like changing a tire. We’re are taking advantage of our fragile psyche, and so we need to get comfortable first.

Here are  a few of my rituals:

  • Location: A public venue, like a coffee shop, with a busy, but relatively quiet clientele works best.
  • A beverage: Lately this has been a red bush tea.
  • The right spot at the right angle. This is probably some mental residue from having read one of Carlos Castenada books and his discussion around places of power. See, I told you: Mysticism.
  • A review of what’s been done before, usually to include the last paragraph or so of prose and my notes on plot and character.

Many years ago, I was compelled to write everything longhand and then transcribe back to the PC. Obviously, this is terribly inefficient, and through pure consideration for the time I have on earth, I trained myself out of this. Although, I must say, I still compose most poetry by pen first.