What people have enjoyed in recent years from leaning more and more heavily on typing rather than on handwriting is “cognitive automaticity” or the ability to write as quickly as we think. Yet paradoxically its benefit is also its problem: by typing everything we’re thinking, we’re not giving our brains time to filter, process, and refine before the words hit the page. It then becomes a case of too much too soon, and being confronted with such a volume of potential disarrayed thinking can be dismaying to the writer.
Further, when confronted with our first thoughts, so easily laid bare by the sheer physical accessibility of typing vs. handwriting, it’s far easier to develop anxious emotions about writing that ought not be scrutinized in such a state in the first place and edit it out of existence.
When you’re a consummate editor of your first drafts, returning to handwriting with pen and paper is the best way back to respecting your thoughts after they’ve had some breathing room to grow, developing a physical relationship with the writing, and giving your novel a chance at surviving into its second draft.
Novelist Jennifer Egan is a consummate hand writer; she wrote her novel Manhattan Beach, winner of the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, over a period of 1.5 years on 28 legal-sized notepads. “I would never get to the end of the page by typing,” she said recently in a conversation with fellow novelist Yiyun Li. “I turn off that self-consciousness completely by writing blind.”
Yiyun Li agreed with her. “On the screen, I’m not a writer, I’m an eraser!”
Slowing Down the Writing Creates a Meditative Quality to the Process — and the Product.
Another reason Egan and Li both write longhand is it forces a slower pace, encourages retention, invites cognitive development, and helps you acquire “a sense of harmony and balance, with rounded forms,” says Roland Jouvent, head of adult psychiatry at Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. “There is an element of dancing when we write, a melody in the message, which adds emotion to the text. After all that’s why emoticons were invented, to restore a little emotion to text messages.”
As the physical movement and cognitive connection coalesce, they bring about a meditative quality in the writing itself. Egan calls it “improv.”
“I start with a place and a time then find a line or groove and just go with it.” Handwriting is a meditative physical act that takes her away from or helps her get away from everyday life. Her handwriting is so bad, she says, she doesn’t and in fact can’t read it and has to guess later.
“That blindness and the meditative quality combined seem to help me be surprised by what emerges. Those surprises are the only good things I come up with. If I decide to tell a story about X, Y and Z, it won’t be good. I have to find the things I can’t think of and handwriting seems to help me do that.”
Handwriting Helps You Avoid the Downward Spiral of Critique → Negative Emotion → Writer’s Block
It’s not only that typing makes it easier for you to remove your original ideas from the playing field; it’s also that you’re inviting emotions about the work’s performance, something that should never enter into the equation in a first draft process.
Opening that door by evaluating work fresh from your mental fields is also a sure-fire way to bring about writer’s block, which is fear that manifests in an inability to continue writing.
When we critique our first thoughts, we’re crossing two states that should never touch. In her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg famously talks about the “writer hand” and the “editor hand” and how if you clench them together, the writing will invariably cease.
Those hands need to be free to do their thing, but the key is they have to go one hand after the other and the writer hand must go first to allow all the creative initial thoughts out. Typing offers a too-easy option to bring the two hands into an angry fist and ruin the flow and beauty of what should be an energetic (if wild and wooly) first draft.
A novel needs to have room and opportunity to live, and if what will keep it alive and kicking through to the end is that you curl up with a pen and paper, given how rewarding it is to slow things down and write by hand, perhaps it’s one of the best options you can give yourself- and your novel.
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