Computer Recovery & Writing in Longhand
(image courtesy of Chloe Strong via pixabay.com)
Whew. The computer is back. It’s much easier to do all the work from the home office, then trying to do it piecemeal on different devices and finding a place to upload. I thank you for your patience.
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It’s taking longer than I would like to get everything downloaded/uploaded/set up again on the computer. The big printer, which started working again the day before the crash, has now gone silent again, and I’ve finally set up the small printer, while I figure out how to get someone over here to diagnose and maybe even fix the big printer (It needs two strong people to carry it; it’s not something that can be shipped or tossed in the back of the car and driven in for repair).
So the week between, which should have been vacation, wasn’t.
But we’re getting there, slowly, and I’m trying to write a few posts ahead, so that in case of another problem (we are in Mercury Retrograde yet again), this, at least, will go out on time.
One of the pleasures, of this period, however, was doing more work in longhand. In one of those wonderful bits of synchronicity, I came across Amy Tan’s essay “Pixel by Pixel” in LIGHT THE DARK, where she talks about the positive impact writing in longhand has on her process. (If you’re not familiar with LIGHT THE DARK, I highly recommend it. The subtitle is “Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process” and it’s quite wonderful).
I don’t do as many first drafts in longhand as I used to, but I still do a good bit of work in longhand, and I find it helps my process. While I can write faster at the keyboard, I am more connected to the longhand writing, and it often needs fewer drafts that something that lived its entire life on the screen.
One set of writing I do completely in longhand, first thing in the morning, is write in my journal. I’ve kept a journal since I was ten years old (which is a long time ago). I’ve tried numerous journal systems, most of which did not work for me, although I enjoy reading about how other people keep their journals. I’ve taught classes on journal writing techniques, and on how to use journal entries as the basis for fiction. I collect published journals. I have a large collection of women’s journals (and not all of them are writers).
I like to write in lined, bound books. I filled five of them in 2022, and I have four in 2023’s pattern. I only started matching the books within the year recently; for decades, I picked whatever the mood at the time wished.
I stick to the rule that the only rule is to date the entry. The date gives context, and the context illuminates the process.
I also like to write the phase of the moon and any retrogrades at the top of the entry, the day of the week, and the weather. Again, context. I find weather has a lot to do with my mood and productivity on a given day. Whereas, in the 80s and 90s, we were determined to get everything done in spite of the weather (and sometimes TO spite the weather) where I live now and how I live now are more affected by the daily changes.
With all the blogging and other writing I do, one would think there’s nothing left for the private journal. Yet I find that I’m writing more in that journal than I have since the mid-80s (when I filled a book a month).
There’s plenty that I don’t discuss publicly. It all goes into the journal. It’s a place to vent, and a place to dream. It’s a place to jot down ideas that I might or might not explore “someday” before I set up the files or scratch notes or start writing in a spiral notebook. It’s the first step to communicating with myself.
Perhaps they serve a similar purpose to the Morning Pages Julia Cameron has championed for decades. But when I attempted Morning Pages, which are encouraged to be a brain dump, they stalled my writing instead of freeing up my brain to be creative. The journal is more linear, leading me through to ideas or through emotions, both positive and negative.
Once I’ve written in the journal, then I pick up one of the spiral notebooks or yellow pads that are everywhere any place I spend time. I tend to do background notes and planning notes on yellow pads, and then type them up and put the sheets in project folders. Whereas spiral notebooks are usually for first drafts.
They used to be for all kinds of first drafts, and I’d try to keep the notebooks for a particular book within the same color and style of notebook. But, as I’ve grown in my process, and as there’s more time pressure on me to write faster and get things out to earn their keep, I tend to use the notebooks to noodle.
What do I mean be “noodling”?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, most of the time, I start from character. Sometimes the character wanders in and starts talking, and just will not shut up until I take some notes. Other times, the character appears, and I get a flash of the catalyst or situation, and then jot down some notes. Other times, such as around Christmas this year, I sit there with the thought, “I’d really like to try writing X” and then wait for characters or images or situations to appear that might fix X.
The best ideas come when I am quiet. When I can still in stillness, almost meditatively, with pen and notebook in hand, and listen, ideas come. Usually in batches (and there will be an entire post on that topic). I’m more likely to sit staring at a blank screen and get frustrated. When I sit down at the computer, I like to have a plan, and then let it rip. But when I sit quietly, be it on the couch, or out on the porch, or even outside in nature, and just listen, I open myself up in a way that doesn’t work for me in front of a screen. The creativity comes from a looser, more free-flowing place, because I’m not in “tech head” the way I am the minute I hear the noise that indicates the computer boots up. Each tool sets off a different type of creativity.
As I’ve also mentioned earlier, I’ve evolved from sitting down and just starting a project to “writing my way in” to see if it’s viable. Plenty of professional writers getting far larger advances than I do will roll their eyes at this; the time could be spent on contracted work. But I find that some of my best work comes more slowly than the tightly contracted material. It comes from having the freedom to try new ideas without the contract and deadline pressure.
At the same time, I can’t afford, in a very literal sense, to spend months or a year drafting a new book that falls apart and has no chance of earning its way in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written those books, loved working on them, and I learned a lot from them. But at this point in the game, in order to keep a roof over my head, I need to have a good sense that a project is viable before I fully commit.
Writing in longhand helps me explore that.
I sit and noodle for however long it takes for the characters to start talking to me, telling me about the situation and why we are together at this moment. What is it about right now that matters?
I jot notes on characters, bits of dialogue, plot points, settings, and odd little quirks or props that come up in the noodling. That’s usually done on the yellow pads.
When I start both hearing and seeing (in my mind’s eye) scenes relevant to the noodling, I get out a spiral notebook and start writing. I write at least 2 pages early in the morning, after the journal session, but before I sit down at the computer to start the day’s work. Often, it’s 4. If it’s flowing well and I can rearrange the rest of the workday, I’ll keep going until I’m written out for that particular day.
Once I have about four chapters written (somewhere between forty and fifty pages) in longhand, I stop the forward motion. I re-read what I’ve written so far (which isn’t easy, because my handwriting is getting worse and worse).
Then I ask myself two questions:
What happens next?
What’s the ending?
If I have a strong “next” after 50 pages, and a good idea where I want to end it, I can sit down and write the Writer’s Rough Outline (which we talked about a few weeks ago). And, of course, it’s happened more than once that those first fifty pages were cut in the second or third draft, because the real start of the book was further in. But I needed those early pages to get me there. It was a case where I needed them, but the reader did not.
Then I’ll sit and write the outline, often in longhand and then type it up. Once that is done, I decide where the book can go in the schedule. Is the momentum strong, and I can/should keep writing a little bit every day? Or has that first burst of energy burned itself out, and I can put it somewhere else in the schedule or in statis (techniques I talk about in The Graveyard of Abandoned Projects). If I start the first draft in longhand, I’ll usually write the entire first draft in longhand. If I start it on the computer (which does sometimes happen, such as for Nano books, or because it’s in a workshop or some other context), then it’s on the computer. Although if I get an idea while out and about, I’ll stop to scribble it into whatever Fragment Notebook I have on me at the time, and then transcribe it when I get home.
If I continue in longhand, I pause every three or four chapters to type them up (which then becomes draft 1A, because I inevitably change things as I type. Sometimes it’s because I can’t read my own writing). If I wait until the first draft is completely done in longhand, it becomes too overwhelming to type.
That causes a change in process, because when it comes to edits, I like to work in full drafts, not sections. Yet, technically, if I’m changing things as I type, it’s the beginning of edits, especially when those changes affect the work going forward when I switch back to longhand. So the books with the first draft in longhand have a different process from start to finish, in some ways, than the books started on screen.
I genuinely enjoy working in longhand, because of the slower physicality of it. It gives me a chance to polish the sentence as I put it on the page, instead of the spilling out that happens when typing.
I prefer to draft plays, scripts, and radio plays directly onto the computer, because of the strict formatting needs. Some short stories work better directly on the computer, because I can draft them in a single sitting. But other pieces work better to initially draft in longhand.
When I’m on tight deadlines, that first longhand session of the morning is sometimes scuttled (or if I’ve caught up on new ideas and am not in need of noodling). But since I was limited in what I could do while the computer was in computer hospital, and I’d booked time off for myself anyway, I indulged myself in spinning out some new ideas.
It’s not only “what next” or “what if this character does that.” Sometimes it’s “what if I try this technique to get that result.” It’s a chance for me to play with craft as well as try new plot and character ideas. I can cross out or skip a page or do whatever I want in a freeform way that can’t happen on screen.
For me, there’s something more tangible about writing in longhand. I feel the writing with my whole body in a way that I don’t when I’m typing. (Although, after hours of typing, my body feels those negative effects).
I couldn’t keep up with the pace of the work I need to do if I did everything in longhand, but it helps keeps a wonderful balance, and work different parts of my creativity than the computer can.
Do you still write in longhand? How is your work different when you do so?
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I often do first drafts of poems longhand, especially when I'm writing from prompts in sessions with the Binghamton Poetry Project. I think this makes it even more likely to write short to medium length lines because of the way they look on the written page.
When I do draft poems on the computer, they are usually ones I've been working on in my head for some length of time. I always draft blog posts directly on the computer. I don't usually write long pieces, but, if I did, I would have to draft on the computer because some orthopedic problems in my right arm wouldn't allow me to write longhand for hours.