There’s something about writing on paper with a pencil or pen which can’t be replicated with a computer. The imperfect lettering, the resistance of the graphite or pen tip against the tooth of the paper, the sound of the instrument over the medium … it’s an intimate feeling, like planing wood by hand with an old and well-worn plane. The paper-thin wisps of shavings produced in a quiet, autumnal night evade description by the most lauded of poets.
The movement of hand on page, leaving behind the traces of thoughts and ideas in your head are beyond description. There’s a magical quality to it, and if you have fine penmanship – a lost art in today’s rushed and harried world of email and word-processed text on a sterile field in cyberspace – it can be both visceral and beautiful, like an artist’s rendering. There’s so much that goes into the slowness, the deliberate intent, of putting the words down. Even with pencil, knowing the words are temporary and can be changed, there’s a careful cognition of what’s passing over your hand onto the page which is duplicable by computer.
The speed of the computer can’t be matched. The drumming of well-trained fingers can exceed the stroke of the pen far and wide, and much more can be accomplished in the same amount of time. But the ideas are forced through a bottleneck when writing is manually done, and that slowing of thought and deliberation of words often makes us take better stock of what it is we’re saying, what it is we’re recording for posterity.
Last night, I sat and read through some notes for a new novel I’m dredging from the swamps of my creative mind. I’ve been at it for months. I got the initial idea and asked you all for your input – your ghost stories. And you graciously gave them to me. I’ll use at least some if not all of them, I’m sure. But that was the seedling, the sprouting of the idea. It’s a slow-growth sort of idea, not a fast-crawling creeper climbing over every surface, sometimes moving so fast you can see the difference while you watch. No, this one’s a burr oak; it takes many cycles for it to stretch its limbs above ground and start stretching for the sunlight, spreading its canopy of leaves in baby steps, until it will one day stand firm and powerful. So I have time to think on the story and the progression of events.
I decided to try writing out my thoughts and ideas on a legal pad. I’m torn of two minds on the matter of to outline or not to outline. I think the process of outlining helps in a lot of ways, and in other ways, I’ve come to realize – mostly with the help of my beloved – that sometimes too much structure and outlining can kill the creative process. No method works for everyone. I think for me, Bryce’s oft-suggested Snowflake Method is probably a good one. I certainly don’t see any harm in trying it.
But I wanted to get as much of the story idea down on paper as I could. And I also thought doing it on paper would be a nice change. I’ve read for years about writers who carried a pad and pen or pencil with them everywhere, and are constantly jotting notes, jotting ideas, working things out, making little annotations to themselves. I didn’t know how far I’d get and how fast, but I wanted to get my thoughts to that point written somehow to keep them from evaporating while I struggled through this block I’m having.
So, I took out a yellow pad of paper and a Dixon Ticonderoga number 2 pencil, and I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I stayed up all night with my wife writing and adjusting and moving forward, until I didn’t have anything else in my head to go farther with. And when I was done, though it was a meager five hand-written pages (and my penmanship is atrocious, if you’re wondering), I felt completely elated and exhausted at the same time. My hand hurt. I was drained in a good way, like when you’ve done a hard physical job around the house and pushed yourself to finish. It was a strange sensation I never got pounding keys on a keyboard.
Using the pencil forced me to think about what I was writing at the time I was writing it. I couldn’t fly on auto-pilot and have my brain running ahead to the next thing, because I had to make sure the notes were legible, comprehensible, and that I’d know what this was all about later. So, I used fairly complete sentences and printed whenever possible.
When I read through those notes, with the intention of transcribing them, it came to me that this was a decent idea for a story, and I should preserve it better than with pencil lines for posterity. I took out a composition notebook, the ones with a black mottled cover and a tape binding, and I re-wrote all the notes into it, in ink. When I finished, despite not going very far and not getting very much done, I felt so gratified and accomplished. It’s an amazing feeling, and one I can’t get from my writing at the keyboard.
Maybe all I need to change my block is a new medium, one devoid of the use of my individual fingers, one that forces a slower pace, one that makes me think through the thoughts swirling in my head because there’s no compromise between speed and legibility, and there’s no backspace key. Maybe this is a cure I didn’t even consider, and should have.
Maybe. I guess time will show. I’ve always been a tactile person.
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