Why creative writing is better with a pen
Not only is longhand a much more portable way to write, it’s also much more individual
In a wonderful article published on the New York Review of Books blog the poet Charles Simic proclaimed “writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is becoming an infrequent activity”. Simcic was praising the use of notebooks of course, and, stationery fetishism aside, it got me thinking about authors who write their novels and poems longhand into notebooks rather than directly onto the screen. There must be some. I mean, I can’t be the only one? Actually, it turns out there are quite a few. A while back I was having a Twitter conversation with the novelists Jon McGregor and Alex Preston about this very topic. Alex had decided to write his next novel with pen and notebook and Jon McGregor and myself couldn’t urge him to do it enough.
A man’s hand writing. Photograph: Acestock/Alamy
Everything I’ve ever written was composed in notebooks first. I have hundreds of them filled with my scribbles tucked away in boxes. I also buy them obsessively, so I probably have just as many empty notebooks lying around the house ready and waiting to be filled. I find that writing longhand I can enter a zone of comfort I find hard to achieve when sitting in front of a screen – I find typing annoying, if I’m honest, not the mechanics of it, but the sound. The constant tap-tap-tap-tap on the keyboard reminds me of all the offices I’ve worked in. The sound bores into me, it fills me with an anxiety I could do without. I feel like I’m signing off invoices rather than writing my next novel. Writing longhand is a whole different feeling. For a start, I can take my notepads and pens everywhere I go; which means I can write anywhere I want, when I want. This is good for me as my writing comes to me in fits rather than prolonged spells. Only when my work is finished in longhand do I transfer it to a computer, editing as I type up. I find this part of my writing process the least enjoyable.
“Pen and paper is always to hand,” agrees Jon McGregor. “An idea or phrase can be grabbed and worked at while it’s fresh. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved, and can be looked over and reconsidered. Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral – a sentence deleted can’t be reconsidered. Also, you know, the internet.”
He’s right, of course. There are far too many distractions when writing directly onto the screen. The internet being the main culprit. But if that’s not all, the computer screen itself is enough to put some writers off completely.
A caricature of John Updike from The New York Review of Books by David Levine
In longhand, the hand moves freely across the page in a way no amount of computer jiggery-pokery can muster. I think the economy of writing longhand is to do with its pace. Which is something Alex Preston has found out.
“I think each writer, and each novel, has an inherent pace,” he says. “It’s important to find a tool that matches the pace of the writing. I composed my first book in a computerised blur; for the second, I wanted to be more scrupulous, more thoughtful. This is the pace of longhand. Writing with the fetish objects – the Uni-ball pen, the Rhodia notebooks –and watching the imprint of pen on page reminds us that writing is a craft. If everything is done on keyboards and fibre-optic wires, we may as well be writing shopping lists or investment reports.”
I can understand this idea of the pen and notepad evoking the idea of craft. For me, writing longhand is an utterly personal task where the outer world is closed off, just my thoughts and the movement of my hand across the page to keep me company. The whole process keeps me in touch with the craft of writing. It’s a deep-felt, uninterrupted connection between thought and language which technology seems to short circuit once I begin to use it.
Above all, though, writing longhand is a secretive pleasure. I can sit in a corner of a café unnoticed and write to my heart’s content. I’m less conspicuous than the iBook brigade, cluttering up London coffee houses and pubs with their flashy technologies. I can’t see the lure of new technologies changing my mind just yet. I’d be interested to find out who else writes longhand, and why they do. And are we really a dying breed?
- Jon McGregor and MJ Hyland beaten to writing prize by PhD student (guardian.co.uk)
- 8 Ways Longhand Writing Frees Your Muse (nwchristianwriters.wordpress.com)
- What I’m Doing (horizonsunknown.wordpress.com)
- Laptop = Convenient = Uninspired (shoutingatwindmills.com)
- Ina Hughs: Cursive traveling on road to extinction (knoxnews.com)
- Allegra Newman and 365 Things To Write About (journalingarts.wordpress.com)
- lettergo.1 (habitgirl.wordpress.com)
- Day 93: morning writing exercise (bluerosegirl08.wordpress.com)
- DW Wilson lands short story prize (bbc.co.uk)