Lies, Damned Lies, and Fiction Writing #1 by Tom Rich
Introducing a regular column from Tom Rich.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Fiction Writing: Writing With Your Hands
I’ve got kind of a love-hate relationship going with technology. On the one hand, I spend a stupid amount of time online, do all of my banking and mail electronically, and enjoy my Kindle. On the other hand, I shave—when beardless, that is—with an old safety razor, walk everywhere I plausibly can, and flatly refuse to get a smart phone. Imagine my volcanic rage when I had to replace my phone—I dropped it in a cup of chocolate milk—and the salesman informed me that soon I wouldn’t be able to get a flip phone; it’d be Android or bust. I only carry a phone at all under protest; now I have to replace it with an elaborate, expensive gadget that will allow my email to follow me everywhere? A pox on your house, sir.
Twenty-five years old and already an old man yelling at clouds, but God help me, I like to do things the simple—some might say the needlessly difficult—way. My mom likes to say that I was raised by the Amish, which is weird because she was there the whole time and I’ve never seen her wear a bonnet. I’ve even given barefoot running a try on a few occasions, each of which reduced my feet to morasses of ragged flesh and spent blisters. The point is that if there’s a cruder, more primitive way of doing something, I’m apt to prefer it, even (especially?) if it involves the risk of plunging my bare foot into a half-rotten muskrat.
Which is why, increasingly, I draft everything with a pen. I hadn’t done it this way in years because my handwriting is awful and I’m impatient, but I started giving it a go during my last year of grad school and the results have been great. Also, painful: my arm aches after a good long session.
The practical benefit is that it adds transcription to the process, and therefore an extra chance to work through the piece. I’m also a big fan of plotting on notecards before I write, and combining them with longhand drafting gives me three opportunities to manipulate the text: as I arrange my notecards, as I write longhand, and as I type it up. It’s a built-in opportunity for revision, and I think it’s made my drafts better than they would’ve been if I’d dumped straight from brain to screen.
But the benefits aren’t just practical; the act of writing longhand is itself pleasurable. The pen I’m using now makes a delightful tap every time I start a new stroke, and fiddling with a pen—clicking the top, taking it apart, spinning it between your fingers—is much less damaging to your productivity than essentially any electronic distraction. When you delete something in Word, it vanishes with a quick, sharp keystroke, but on paper things go out with the flourish of a medieval execution: the offending text remains on the page like a head on a pike. Too, the sound of a strikethrough is pleasant, a long, smooth swoop that eclipses the short, furtive sounds of writing. And, of course, erasing a Word file will never be as cathartic as crumpling a page and tossing it across the room.
I like the way paper feels—except when it’s cold and my hands are dry—and I like that I can adjust my posture more than a computer allows. The best part, though, is the low pressure that builds up in my head as my thinking outpaces my hand. Writing longhand lets a backlog of composed sentences build up, and the press of it—the need to write a sentence down because I’ve already got the next one consciously composed and I might forget it if I don’t hustle—pushes the whole operation along. It’s somewhere between an ice cream headache and what a brain tumor feels like in my nightmares, only enjoyable.
Of course, there’re downsides. The going is slow, and I always wind up with ink smeared across my hands, and sometimes face. For me, though, the pros outweigh the cons. I’m thinking for my next project I’ll get some vellum, a quill pen, and a cabin in Montana. Happy writing!
Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.