Write Your Way Out of a Rut (the Old-Timey Way)
99% of everything ever written in the history of the world was written by hand, but today, almost every word starts its life on a screen. This is even truer in the case of screenplays, where programs like Final Draft make quick work of complex margins. And with penmanship becoming a dying art and decades of talk about "the paperless office," there is no denying we are definitely heading towards a society where paper communication is a thing of the past, even if that day is decades away. Yet there are demonstrable benefits to writing longhand, and if you find yourself in a writing rut, or are just looking for a new way to look at things, then a pen (or maybe even a typewriter) might be just what you're looking for.
Earlier this year, I found myself obsessed with the concept of my writing and its so-called "workflow" (though that guy does seem to have it all figured out); I was spending almost as much time reading and implementing productivity systems as I was actually being productive; ironically, I was less efficient. A professor of mine, who writes novels by longhand, once suggested that I ditch the word processor for a while.
I followed her advice, bought a yellow legal pad, a Pilot Precise V7 (black or blue, but I prefer black), and set to work. It was remarkable; the words flowed more easily, and without an option to go back and erase or revise (crossing out or erasing words becomes way too bothersome after a few pages), I wrote without editing what was in my head. Now, I have the handwriting of a doctor who should have his license revoked, but it didn't bother me (since I could read it, even if no one else could), and when my work was done, typing it back into the computer produced a painless first edit. It felt like I was just copying, when I was really making little decisions the whole time, and had, in a way, tricked myself into editing. As Nietzsche, who worked on the first commercially available typewriter, the Malling-Ball said, "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts." And even in 2014, what with all the hoverboards and etc., the list of writers who compose without modern technology is a long and illustrious one. Among filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, for one, is a devotee of the pen, telling Reuters:
My ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook -- and I don’t buy like 10. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Grindhouse with."
Screenplays are a complicated form, with byzantine pagination, yet for thousands of years, plays have been written by hand, or, in the recent past, on typewriters, which might seem even more difficult than a pen and pad. I have an Olivetti Lettera 32, one of the first portable models, and surprisingly, it has a complex mechanical system of margins, whereby you can set several stops or tabs, using the "tabulator" key; there's room for the slug line, action, dialogue, etc. The guidelines in classic reference books like Cole/Haag's standard Complete Guide to Script Formats are based on conventions borne of the typewriter, and the reason Courier is the industry standard font is because it mimics the average typewriter font; screenwriting software is really typewriter emulating technology, and typewriters helped to define the movies, e.g., the so-called page-per-minute rule (which isn't exactly hard and fast at all times, but still, if you submit a spec in eminently readable Helvetica, odds are you won't make it past the reader. My typewriter is, coincidentally, the same model No Country for Old Men author Cormac McCarthy uses. He has written every novel of his on the little machine, one of the first "portables," and when he auctioned his for charity, raising a quarter of a million dollars and change, he promptly went out, bought another for $20, and continues to pound away on the discontinued typewriter. Because the internet exists, here's a video of someone typing on an Olivetti Lettera 32 for 2:08:
I'm sure Mr. McCarthy thinks differently, but is not easy to use. I can barely get through a haiku on the thing, but there are lots of places that still cater to typewriter users. I traded a half-broken Play Station to get mine, and spent a few hundred on repairs.) And, given enough ribbon, which can be hacked, and oil, it will outlive me. A typewriter is a formidable thing, and if anything, it's taught me that we are spoiled, guys. It's really no wonder so many writers welcomed the computer with open arms. This history of the word processor in literature is fascinating, and names Stephen King's story, entitled, I kid you not, "The Word Processor," as the first work of literature composed on a, um, word processor, in 1983. It was later adapted into an episode of Tales From The Darkside (I could only find a link to the movie for sale, though. SRY.):
I'm not suggesting you go out and buy a typewriter or an old Mac, but the knowledge that it's possible to write in other forms, and write well (Chinatown, for instance, was not written with Final Draft) is liberating. And, just as writing by hand can free your mind from fear of making mistakes, a typewriter can make you concentrate on each word more. It's like how the introduction of NLE systems quickened the pace of films; before Avid or Final Cut, an edit required physical movement; a cut really was a cut. I remember learning to edit film with a razor and tape, and you think long and hard about each cut when you know it will not only take time, but physically change something; it's not a lossless process. Writing by hand isn't binary, either. We have programs today for brainstorming and outlining with virtual notecards, but a pack of 100 index cards ran me about three dollars (and those are the fancy kind); there's even an analog, DIY, "hipster PDA". The aesthetic benefits of changing your means of production have been documented by many writers, including Patrick McClean:
But when I write longhand, the experience is different -- the words are just rushing out. And they're not henpecked or second-guessed before they've had time to cool. They exist in a flawed, but pure state. This kind of prose has a feral power that seems to be lacking from the things I type. Maybe that's not it; maybe it's just harder to get my head in that effortless writing space when I use a keyboard. But whatever the case is, writing longhand makes it easier for me to reach a writer's high.
There are also cognitive benefits to writing by hand, and for those who still can't get their mind around the idea of carrying pen and paper, the digital world is not all push-button:
Some high-tech allies also are giving the practice an unexpected boost through hand-held gadgets like smartphones and tablets. Dan Feather, a graphic designer and computer consultant in Nashville, Tenn., says he's "never adapted well to the keypads on little devices." Instead, he uses a $3.99 application called "WritePad" on his iPhone. It accepts handwriting input with a finger or stylus, then converts it to text for email, documents or Twitter updates.
For me, writing longhand is part of a process that has connected me to the written word in a different, more satisfying way. The work I have produced has been unusual, better, and, interestingly, just like with computers, not any old pen and paper will do. Writers are obsessives about their tools, and the perfect pen (for me, as I said, the Pilot Precise V7, chosen over the V5 but only just) and paper (I write fiction on legal pads, and use a few different kind of notebooks for different types of work). When I started the habit of writing by hand, I found myself taking more notes, too, that is, underlining books I was reading and making longer notes than I would have were I reading a digital version of whatever I had. I've also experimented with the idea of writing in different formats for different characters within the same project, e.g., a manual typewriter for one, a marble composition book or Scrivener for another. As an essayist once wrote, "handwriting is civilization's casual encephalogram."
Handwriting makes us human, and it can also make us better writers. So, by all means, if you find yourself in a rut, or can't remember what it feels like not to compose while looking at a screen, then give writing by hand a shot. But, you know, keep things in perspective. I'm not blogging this by hand, and then copying into the computer. That would be ridiculous. I'm writing it by hand, then typing it up, scanning the typewritten copy and, lastly, using handwriting recognition software that costs several thousand dollars and really only works like 80% of the time, because -- the future.
[Handwriting image by Flickr user Angelo Amboldi]