Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Long Hand of the Writer

A nice little Twitter discussion last few days around "writing longhand." Alex Preston was thinking of doing it, and being encouraged by Jon McGregor and Lee Rourke. I put my twopen'th in, but it got me thinking.

I've deliberately written poems longhand these last few years - though during late nineties/early noughties I was equally as likely to write poems to screen. There seems no reason why that should be a bad thing; and I found it interesting in terms of form and content; but in reality, I've nearly always written poems longhand, the scribbling out, the flash of inspiration, all seems to encourage it. But I've written good poems direct to screen as well.

Fiction's different though. I've been a type-writer since 1990 at least - helped along by access to word processors (typewriters were another matter) and a reasonably fast typing speed. When in full flow on fiction my handwriting had difficulty keeping up with the thought processes of getting the writing down and I still think that's true to a large extent; but that said, I've been struggling to get prose down in any way shape or form of late, and wondering whether something of this might be the ubiquity of the screen - the ever present internet in the corner of my vision.

When I participated in the multiple writer residency "the Reading" recently I found myself able/forced to write to the screen for a good 3 hours. At home, the distractions become too easy. Yet I've never given up longhand entirely - the issue has always been the extra work involved in typing it up (with the caveat that you get to 2nd draft it - but I'm a pretty good copy typist, so to be honest, I don't do much revising when doing that.) (And besides, my handwriting is sometimes illegible.)I was surprised a while back to find that the novel I'd begun on my M.A. was started longhand - though only the first few pages. In those days it was easier to be without a computer, now they seem a little too ubiquitous and maybe that's the problem. It almost takes a leap of faith to believe that you can go back to writing longhand - even though you know that Martin Amis and William Gibson still do (I think), and that the majority of writing that you revere was written in that way. Who used to type up these manuscripts? Obedient spouses? Hard-pressed publishing assistants? The writer...? In other words, you can romanticise the "longhand", when it can sometimes be cutting off one of the better tools the modern writer has.

I carry a pad with me these days, and every now and then start something longhand - either because I'm away from the computer, or, as importantly, because I'm wondering if that might be a more efficient way of channelling the imagination. Yet I've sat on trains with a laptop and written 3-4000 words - highly productively - so its not just that.

But anyway, the Twitter conversation got me thinking, and I was away from a computer for a few days up in the North East, and I had a pad with me, and a bit of spare time, and I started writing a story. I'm going to try and finish it in that form, even knowing that I've the job I've entering it on to the screen at some point; the writing doesn't necessarily seem that different, but I do think there's something in seeing the words immediately on the page - for if the computer can be a match for the notebook for writing, I'm still sure it's not what I need for reading my work.

The strangest thing was how it did tie my imagination a little behind my back. For I'd no computer on which to check a word, or a spelling, or to look up a particular technical term or other such detail. Those gaps are starting to appear in the narrative as I write, and I find it the least appealing part of the process. Just as Hemingway's newsman's Remington seemed to be echoed in his taut writing style, I think the longhand writer is potentially handicapping the imagination, by taking away the extended tools by which it now functions so seamlessly. My longhand story suddenly feels less modern than ones I write straight to the screen. Yet, for me, at this point in time, the suggestion seemed a good one. Short fiction in particular - but longer stuff as well - doesn't seem particularly interested in the modern at present; and by going back, I wonder if I might unlock at least something of the difference.

(Adrian uses Muji exercise pads. They are cheap, comfortable to hold, and the pages are wide).


scott g.f.bailey said...

I am working on my sixth novel right now. All of them so far have been written longhand and the editing/revising has been by hand on printed manuscripts. I like a great many things about writing by hand. First, it's slower in terms of words-per-minute than typing, but that gives me more time to think about each sentence as I write it. The quality of my prose, on the sentence level, is higher when I write longhand than when I type. Secondly, I do my first editing on the original longhand MS before I type it into Word. What I like about editing on paper is that I see the history of the edits. If I delete something, it's still there beneath the strike-through. Something about how easily things are deleted permanently on computers discomfits me greatly.

The issue of being removed from the tools of the internet isn't present for me at all. My imagination works just as well without the web. I do my research with books mostly, and not when I'm drafting. There's plenty of time to fact-check during revisions. I draft in A5 size Pantone notebooks so I can write anywhere. In 2006 or so I got into the habit of writing nearly every day at lunchtime, and on the bus commute home. I average about 1,000 words a day like this.

Art Durkee said...

Interesting synchronicity.

Yesterday I wrote a poem in my longhand journal for the first time in a while. It was the first poem that came easily in awhile, too, since I went through surgery a couple of months ago. It felt good.

I write longhand when I'm on the road, camping, hiking, away from civilization. Even though I travel with the laptop, I still like to write by hand. Especially poems, as writing by hand slows you down long enough to think things through before you write them down.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Well, I've written the story long hand. 17 pages without a title as yet. Now the daunting bit, that I've got to type it up before I can do a thing more with it! That's the down side... the upside was that I felt quite relaxed about writing it; which took place in 3 or 4 different places. Felt it had time to breathe. So, yes, Scott, that portability worked for me.

It feels that the story misses some details which, had I been on the internet I'd have sorted out, and I'm only worried that I've created myself a herculean task, and it will forever lie in my notebook!