When it comes to creative writing, deep down we all know that if literature giants like Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Homer (Iliad, Odyssey), and Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote), wrote their masterpieces when electricity was still in the realm of science fiction, then there are no excuses for not being able to write just because our PCs aren’t perfectly up to date.
In fact, a sheet of paper and a pencil. That’s all it takes to write. I mean, from a purely technical point of view.
But time does fly, and times do change. As a result what was usual in the past can now be regarded as a curious retro habit. And indeed, among my friends only one doesn’t possess a PC. And all he writes he writes with pen and paper.
Of course, the fact so many writers use computers and word processors to write doesn’t mean this is the only viable way. It doesn’t even mean it’s necessarily the most effective one. Just think of the millions of people who smoked a lot of cigarettes because technology had made them cheap and easy to produce–and advertising made smoking fashionable.
As a matter of fact, writing with pen and paper can offer some interesting advantages.
Creative productivity 101: know thyself
First of all, handwriting helps to make deeper connections about what we write.
As a result, handwriting can be useful when we are about to embark on a large book with many subplots and characters. In fact, if we write it with pen and paper we are bound to have a way deeper and more complete idea of the whole project.
Of course, given we are the authors we should know our story perfectly well from the get go, right?
In theory… maybe. But from a practical point of view there’s no reason writers must know beforehand what they are about to write. Not when they’re just writing down a first draft.
Plotters will rise up in arms at this. But the truth is that even plotters have to start from somewhere. And at that point the sheet is always completely blank.
After all, as Robert Frost says, No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
Another perk of handwriting seems to be that people writing by hand seem to write more, faster, and in more articulate sentences. So we might even end up with less shitty first drafts.
Gym for geeks?
Of course, handwriting cannot substitute a healthy running session or a workout in the gym.
Yet, from a certain point of view, writing longhand can be equated to physical exercise. It’s a complex task that requires coordination and very fine motor adjustments. In fact, it forces our brain to light up in a lot of different parts, and so doing it keeps it sharp and active.
You can’t tell a book by its cover
Longhand writing can give us a touch of intellectual charm. Of course, if our writing is clear and elegant we can give the impression we’re classy and bright–real rising stars!
But even if our handwriting isn’t exactly stellar nothing is lost. In fact many famous writers filled pages and pages of prose that was almost unintelligible–and not because it didn’t make any sense. So, our handwriting may well be ugly, but we can rest assured we’re in good, or rather, in excellent company.
We all know how a change of scenery can do us a power of good. But it isn’t always possible to simply jump on a plane and fly somewhere away to recharge our batteries. We have spouses, parents, children, deadlines, commitments and so on we have to take into account.
As a result, it becomes extremely important being able to devise ways to change scenery, so to speak, without having to physically displace ourselves.
In my case I found out that on more than one occasion when I find myself stuck somewhere in a work and it seems impossible to find a way out of the corner I’ve written myself into, the simple act of changing the tool I’m using can work wonders.
I mean, the act of sharpening my pencil, of opening my notepad and beginning to write–those psychical acts so different from the usual pounding of my fingers on the keyboard–have the power to kick back my brain into overdrive.
Usually I handwrite a dozen of pages, no more. But that is enough. Because once the obstacle is gone I can go back to the PC and keep going.
You know, I’ve never watched a video on Youtube while I was writing on a notepad. Not once. And the reason has nothing to do with my having superhuman willpower and self-control. (I have both of them, of course, but I rarely decide to use them, you know…)
Quite simply, we can’t fire up a notepad. It doesn’t bother us with idiotic notifications. It doesn’t lure us into checking our emails or sales rank. It doesn’t even tell us about the weather–though it sort of gets wet and a bit spongy if we leave it out in the cold–but that’s probably beside the point.
In short, a notepad can also help us to boost our creative productivity.
Back to the origins
For me writing on a scrap of paper with a pencil, one of those particularly soft, that leave dark and thick strokes and a lot of smudges also, is like travelling back in time.
That time when I was a child and there wasn’t any computer around yet. When the only way to write was that of picking up a pencil and a sheet of paper and listen to my thoughts. When I strove to write fast. To keep pace with the fast flowing stream of ideas gushing from my head.
I don’t know how. But these days for me putting pencil to paper is like when, as a child, I slept in a tent in the garden, or built a house on a tree.
I don’t know exactly where it is. But there’s some magic in it. Maybe it’s just the magic of the memory. But, be that as it may, I don’t care.
After all, as Diderot said in his Paradoxe sur le comédien, “the majority of people do not feel, they believe they feel; they do not believe, they believe that they believe.“
So, similarly when it comes to writing, we must use whatever helps us to build our daily pyramid of words. Except to keep track of our daily word count, objectivity isn’t required. Not at all.