Who writes in longhand anymore?
Society awards a certain level of sophistication to the act of typing. Writing longhand is so eighteenth century. You’re writing in a notebook? Why not just pull out a feather quill and some foolscap? (Note: I don’t actually know what foolscap is. I’ve just read it for years and years and assumed it’s a kind of paper.)
Of course there are layers and layers within this typer’s sophistication. There’s the cafe full of people furiously typing away at MacBooks, surreptitiously checking their Facebook when they don’t think anyone is looking, securing their spot and their computer with eye contact and a nod with the neighboring typer when nature calls (all those lattes have to go somewhere).
I’ve been part of that scene, and for a long time I thought it was the most sure way to identify myself as a writer. You feel like a writer, when you’ve shrugged off your sweater and you’re sipping lukewarm coffee and your fingers are flying across your MacBook’s keys. It’s like going to the office. It’s more official than when you sit on your couch in your pajamas.
(NOTE: I am currently sitting on my couch, in my pajamas.)
Some people take the typing obsession a bit further and get a typewriter. Typewriters require a certain amount of confidence — you’re clipping along at a good pace, just like on a computer, but without the safety net of a delete button. Of course, they’re not socially acceptable in cafes. (Although I could see a typewriter cafe being extremely popular in Brooklyn, and now that I think of it, I’m kind of shocked that this is not a thing. Can you imagine the noise level? They could issue earplugs at the door, I suppose.)
But what both typewriters and computers get wrong is speed. Too much speed. Typing fast is a modern accomplishment. And it’s great for certain kinds of work, like taking notes or hammering out a bunch of emails that don’t require a lot of wordsmithing.
I type too fast. The WPM averages that I took such pride in during my 7th grade Business Applications class are not good for my novels. When I’m in a typing groove, fingers flying, delete button hardly in play, I can get down thousands of words in an hour. The problem is that I’m writing with a total lack of caution.
Which sounds great, until two hours later when I sit back, crack my knuckles, and realize that I’ve gone so far off the rails that I either have to rewrite my entire book to accommodate the detour my plot has taken, or do a substantial amount of deleting.
The crazy thing is, this just keeps happening. I keep on giving in to the seductive Cult of Typing, slipping into a booth at my local cafe and joining the typing legions. I write for an hour or two, smile, do it again the next day, smile, and a few days later I look at the work and try to figure out how it’s heading towards the ultimate conclusion and realize… I’ve done it again.
I have a stack of documents on my hard drive now that are painful to think about, most of them relating to Turning For Home, the upcoming (supposedly, if I could nail it down) novel in the Alex and Alexander series. They’re well-written (some of them are downright fantastic) and I can’t just dismiss them. But some of them, eventually, won’t fit into the narrative. That’s brutal to think about. (I love my words!)
All of this, of course, could be avoided if I would just learn my lesson and stick to longhand for first drafts. Longhand isn’t necessarily sophisticated. It doesn’t give me that Look I’m a Professional Writer look. It makes my right hand ache and I’ll probably end up with arthritis.
But longhand is slow enough, even when I’m scribbling, that I have more time to think about my words. And so unlike typing, which allows me to throw words onto the screen with abandon, emphasizing quantity over quality, longhand creates measured, thoughtful sentences from the very first draft. Scenes that open and close in perfect rhythm. Characters who stop and think instead of just chattering their way through a dialogue.
And I can still write in longhand while sitting on my couch, wearing pajamas.
Every time I write a book, I come back to my notebooks and my pens and my aching hand as I slowly write it all down in longhand. I don’t know why I keep trying to do it all on the computer. I suppose I’m trying to save time. But if there’s one thing that should never, ever be hurried, it’s a work of fiction. I’m posting this here to remind me of that.