Among the more onerous delusions that encumbers the twenty-first century is the notion that gadgetry and electronics will solve every problem we have ever faced as a species. I was born in 1975, which makes me a bit young to qualify as a curmudgeon, but I am old enough to remember what the world was like for thousands of years prior to the advent of cell phones, laptop computers and email.
Still, I’m no Luddite. I have a cell phone (an antiquated clamshell clunker, albeit), I’m on Facebook, and I have a website. I freely admit that there are real, tangible, and indispensible benefits to the high-tech world. But what seems to get lost in this brave new hipster paradise is the fact that sometimes the old-fashioned way of doing something can still work the best.
Over the last few years, I’ve begun hand-writing the first drafts of my manuscripts. That’s right—hand writing. Longhand. With a pen and paper, like I learned in primary school. This isn’t some ideological statement against the inexorable march of digital technology. I actually stumbled into it by accident. A couple years ago I was working on the first draft of my second novel when my laptop died and I didn’t have the funds to replace it. At the time I was about eighty pages into the manuscript and just hitting my stride. Abandoning or postponing the story was not an option, so I was forced to find a low-cost alternative. That alternative turned out to be a four-dollar purchase of a pen and a spiral-bound notebook.
It was daunting at first, I’ll admit. I hadn’t written anything by hand since learning to type in high school. My fingers cramped up. I had trouble stacking the pieces of the narrative in the proper order. I cursed the proverbial blue streak every few minutes at not being able to cut and paste paragraphs at will.
But I stuck with it for 150,000 words. About fifty thousand of that got cut in the initial edits, but it’s still a marathon effort if I do say so myself. It was a relief to finally finish and get back to the keyboard, but when the time came to start something new, I found myself longing for the scratch of a pen upon paper.
I type fast—really fast—and writing longhand can be agonizingly slow. But I’ve found real benefits to it, benefits that cannot be found in the world of circuits and touch-sensitive screens. Writing by hand, I pay more attention to the flow of the narrative for the simple reason that my fingers have to last for two or three hours of composition every morning. There’s a limited budget there, and I don’t want to waste it. In a somewhat more metaphysical sense, the slow pace of writing longhand forces me to not waste time and effort filling the page with a bunch of crap that doesn’t serve the story. It’s far too easy to just wheel off on any old tangent that strikes your fancy when you’re clipping along at a hundred-plus words per minute. Then you get bogged down wondering where the hell the story is going and the narrative loses its urgency and before you know it you’re staring at the screen wondering if you have any new messages on Facebook.
Hand-writing is low-tech and hassle-free. It’s liberating not to be shackled to my laptop, particularly when I’m travelling. I have no worries about how long my battery will last or where I can charge it. I don’t have to pull out my spiral-bound notebook for security at the airport. And my black pen will never crash or get infected with a virus.
I still use my computer for subsequent drafts and polishing, but when it’s time to compose new material, I quite literally reach for my pen. As a result, I’ve lost all tolerance for writers who claim to need a computer to write, for the very simple reason that they don’t. Writers crafted stories without computers for thousands of years. I won’t say that longhand is for everyone, but unless your fingers are broken, it remains a viable option.
It is perhaps one of the little victories of our age to have the old working alongside the new. To amalgamate a couple lines from Wendell Berry, you can’t go back to writing with pen and paper. But when it makes perfect sense to do so, you can go forward to it.