The Loneliness of the Longhand Writer



I thought I’d try an experiment with this blog entry, by composing it in a word processor, but I gave up after four paragraphs. It’s an experiment because I usually draft in longhand, in a large cheap notebook, before encoding the text, revising and editing as I go, and printing it out for further revision, encoding those revisions, and repeating the process until I’m happy with the work.


Composing in a computer, I had to stop writing several times to think or correct or rephrase myself. I’m leery of writing in a stop-and-start rhythm, worried that the staccato will creep into my prose, and I had to fight the urge to reach for my notebook and pen.


I must sound like a Luddite, although I’ve used word processors since the late 80s, when PCs were still an oddity and WordStar and WordPerfect reigned supreme. Something about drafting in longhand just seems easier—my writing hand is better able to keep up with my thoughts, and I don’t worry as much about grammar and style, knowing that I’ll be able to fix things as I encode the text. Because I had to take typing classes in high school and college, I’m a fairly good touch typist, but I type fastest when I’m copying text, not when I’m writing.


Natalie Goldberg advocates longhand freewriting in Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, asserting that writing is a physical activity, and that using one’s hand to make marks on paper allows thoughts to be recorded more quickly than typing does. My handwriting veers towards illegibility when I write fast, and my notebooks can end up very messy, but I find it easier to enter the trance-like state that allows me to churn out words at a steady, quick rate.


Perhaps this method is better suited to prose writers, who have to accumulate a critical mass of words as quickly as possible—quantity first, quality later. In the few times I’ve attempted poetry, my pace is often much more deliberate and contemplative, whether I’m writing or typing.


I’ve also seen some of Ms. Goldberg’s observations about the body’s response to longhand writing in my students. When I force them to freewrite, their postures become looser as they attune themselves to the movements of their writing hands. In timed freewriting exercises they often find themselves producing more words per minute with each successive round.


Ms. Goldberg also practices Zen Buddhism, so she constantly associates her zazen practice with writing exercises, which she sees as a form of meditation—writing without thinking, to attain a blankness of thought to produce words. The Surrealists used automatic writing to liberate their creativity by allowing their subconscious to break the surface and manifest itself verbally. David Lynch (in Catching the Big Fish) writes about using transcendental meditation to get to the more interesting ideas and develop them in unconventional ways. It would appear that the conscious mind, with its repository of memories, can only produce clichés, and one must train oneself not to think when writing, so the good stuff comes out. (The same can’t be said for editing and revising, though.)


I still draft in longhand, and I’m not likely to give it up any time soon. Often, I’ll leave the computer to draft in my notebook, especially when I’m stuck. Sometimes I’ll write a sentence or a paragraph in longhand and move back to the computer to continue there, almost as if the longhand writing was a jumpstart. In longhand I can keep going for up to an hour, which translates to five to eight manuscript pages, before I need a break.


My allegiance to longhand freewriting might have been fortified by running, which I took up while I was writing my novel. I ran every other day for half an hour to an hour at sunrise, before it got too hot. I’ve never been an athletic person, so this period was a time of acquainting myself with my body and its physical capabilities. I learned the value of warming up, of breathing properly, of pacing myself. I also observed how my body dealt with its limitations.


In the first 10 minutes of a run I would always encounter a point of exhaustion, when I felt I needed to stop and catch my breath. Conventional runners’ wisdom holds that one should not stop moving at that point, but slow down as much as necessary and continue until one is able to speed up again. Once I passed that point, I found that I could keep running for longer and longer periods of time. I would still get tired and breathless, but no longer to the point of having to stop.


The physicality of longhand writing works in the same way for me. I find it easier to longhand my way past a block, a distraction, or a moment of exhaustion. When I can’t think of anything to write, I set that thought to paper, repeatedly if necessary, until my brain tires of the monotony or I come up with something else to write. I write anything just to keep my hand moving, as Ms. Goldberg advises, confident that sooner or later something more will come.


Joyce Carol Oates, another running writer, says (in “Running and Writing,” from A Writer’s Faith) that “writers and poets are famous for loving to be in motion,” citing the diaries and essays of several American and British writers. I suspect the need for motion is to compensate for the immobility writers endure while working. Often I’ve seen students taking essay quizzes stop to stretch arms and legs, roll their necks, shake their writing hands, and take deep breaths, before continuing. I’m a pacer myself, and I’ve found that my workspace needs to have other rooms contiguous to it, for me to pace through.


I live in the city now, and I’ve stopped running because the air is just too choked with diesel fumes for aerobic exercise to be pleasant or healthy. I’ve made up for it by practicing yoga sporadically. Since I find the idea of a yoga class contradictory, I bought a good book and taught myself in the solitude of my home. I lucked upon a gentle type of yoga that encourages you to work at your own pace, incrementally building up your skill and strength.


Yoga is decidedly not about motion—it’s more like a series of strenuous immobilities. I find that it has improved my concentration to hold a pose for some time, listening to my body responding to the strain. I’m unable to think of anything during yoga—it demands a blissful blankness—but practicing it has helped me to achieve the writing trance more easily, and it does keep me limber, so I can maintain a writing position for the long periods that are necessary.


Anyone who wants to be a prose writer should engage in sports or exercises that can enhance their concentration and endurance. Haruki Murakami writes about running marathons in his charming memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He hints that training for a marathon is akin to the discipline and persistence of a novelist to sit down at the writing desk everyday or risk getting out of shape. He also alludes to the solitude of long distance running as a way of testing one’s individual limits while understanding that one will get to the finish line eventually.


Looking back, I think running was the best preparation I could have had for writing a novel for the first time. With the benefit of hindsight I can tackle the coming novel with more awareness of the necessary commitment, but back then my writing practice was a mess.


I wrote my novel in longhand, filling four notebooks; some of it was composed on a computer, in the process I described above. The inspiration first came in high school while researching some local history for a paper. I let the idea fester all through college while I flexed my writing muscles with some short stories, and attending writing workshops. After college I decided to start writing it and produced about 30 pages, which I set aside for about six years. I realize now that I had yet to develop any stamina.


I worked on other writing projects, completed my MFA requirements, and when I returned to the novel in earnest, I also happened to take up running, and the work began to proceed more steadily, faithfully. Life interrupted, naturally, but the gaps between writing were shorter and fewer. Finally it came down to two intense weeks during which I holed up in my apartment and worked on the novel each waking hour, stopping only to eat. In running terms, it was a long stroll that ended in a sprint.


Mr. Murakami writes about the “runner’s blues,” the exhaustion he felt after an ultramarathon and the conviction never to run again. Finishing my novel felt like that, and I resisted the idea of writing a second one. I flailed about for things to do, keeping busy with other projects, any project but novel #2. It wasn’t so much the fear of the Second Novel Syndrome as the knowledge that once I decided to do it, my life had to be rearranged around that one project and I would have to concentrate, step by step, word by word, on finishing it in a decent enough time.


They say the body’s cells are completely renewed after seven years, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s taken me seven years to come around to starting another novel. More prolific writers would call me lazy, and I wouldn’t argue. Each writer just needs to learn the way to attack a problem that’s the best way for him.