Thanks for joining me on virtual retreat last month as I scouted Spain (more on that soon!) and gathered with a small group of writers in southern France for an inspiring week of rest, rejuvenation, and radical creativity. And if you were following along, some very interesting discussions happened along the way, including foreign languages, beauty in decay, topless beaches (!) and one that I want to talk more about here: writing by hand.
I’m not talking about writing by hand only to capture your inner chatter or to clear your mind or to know yourself. All things I highly recommend and consider a necessary part of a creative life. I’m talking about actual creative drafting. The actual idea. The first draft. By hand.
I would not be exaggerating if I said 99% of my first drafts happen on paper. For me, the computer is for sculpting and editing, but the genesis of the idea is a delicate spark that happens in the quiet of the page, the intimacy of pen tip to paper. Like a first kiss that happens over and over and over each time the notebook opens.
(some of my notebook’s recent adventures)
In Going Short I talk about re-writing drafts from scratch when I’m searching for the right words or rhythm and I just can’t seem to “edit” myself there. But what I failed to mention is that I also do this by hand. Switching to the notebook, especially when stuck, can jar you back into the creative flow for many reasons including:
Location independence. You can write anywhere—at the restaurant, under the backyard tree. On the park bench. At the DMV. On the train. Even in bed—honestly many of my ideas come first thing in the morning while I’m in bed. Before my eyes have fully sharpened out of sleep, as coffee is just waking up my system, I find it easier to harness the dream world on a raft of paper and pen.
By hand. Handmade. We slow down when we write by hand. In the stillness we feel the pen and ink, the crinkle of pages, the loops of our own words unspooling across the white. It is a tactile experience that shifts the way our brain connects to syntax and activates a more intuitive part of the brain. I find that different sorts of ideas arrive in the notebook than to the screen, or at least a different version of those ideas, often already in conversation with each other. (I worked with a wonderful writer recently who “found” her character’s distinct voice when she moved to the written page.)
Evading the critic. When I write by hand my critic is less….critical. Since the work is not typed up and in TIMES NEW ROMAN, it feels more like play. And that’s the trick: if you can fool yourself into believing what you are writing (by hand) doesn’t count, then you relax. You start to have fun. You follow tangents. You get silly/messy/weird/beautiful….brilliant. You take creative risks that feel too intimidating on the official screen, in the official font. And in taking those risks…you often find your truth. You go deeper.
(As an interesting aside, when I’m journaling my handwriting is neat and lovely and legible. But when The Muse descends and I’m actually drafting the idea on the page my handwriting becomes wild, a gallop, a sprint—looping and furious, barely legible even to me. It’s almost as if two different hands, two different minds are at work.)
An organic second draft. Another wonderful thing happens when you write by hand: you eventually have to type the (good) stuff up. Therefore, what came out unhindered and unrestricted gets an organic first edit just in the typing-up process. (This is different than editing WHILE writing–which I never recommend. You are now sculpting. Second draft. Different process. Different hat.)
If you or your writing is feeling stuck, or you’re needing an inspiration boost, or the blue light of the screen or the ergonomic familiarity of your office chair feels lackluster—try walking away. Grab a notebook and go to bed. Or to the living room. Or to the porch swing. And yes, to the café or in the park.
Take the question, or problem, or idea to the page like a devotion. Lay it on the altar of paper and pen and allow the answers to come through your hand.