Written by Hand

I’ve recently returned to writing by hand.  With a pencil (my current favourite is a Staedtler norica HB 2 which is a very pleasing blue and has one of those excellent Staedtler Mars plastic erasers on the end).  On yellow legal pads.  I haven’t gone retro for all kinds of writing.  For speeches, book reviews, essays, emails, blogs and all kinds of writing that hang on a logical throughline I write on screen with its lovely, tidy-all-the-time sleekness, its no-nonsense cold blue light, its snappy little icons all waiting in the dock, eager to help me format and forward and paste and clear and insert and autosummarize.  (Actually I’ve never autosummarized, whatever that is, but it is comforting to know that it is there for me in my time of need.)  For fiction, however, for the kind of writing in which I am making something from nothing, I seem to need concrete tools.  I need to feel as though I’m making something with my hands, that I am in the company of people who whittle or repair umbrellas or graft apple scions or whip cream in a copper bowl.  I need resistance, the slight resistance of pencil on paper, the way the graphite doesn’t quite want to leave its trail behind on the wood pulp, the reluctance of the eraser.  And I need the slow accumulation of pages written, the feeling of satisfaction as I come to the end of the pad of paper and dig out a new one, all fresh and full of the promise of worlds that only I can make.  As for the pokiness of hand-writing – I can write at about the same pace as I can invent a story.  With no perky little cursor urging me to produce, to make the most of my time, to get on with it, to buckle down, I can find the proper rhythm for my narrative.  Sometimes I’m quick and messy; sometimes I’m slow and calligraphic.  Sometimes I doodle.  Distractions?  Apart from sharpening the pencil there isn’t much to pull me away.  Imagine my delight, therefore, to come across an article about the cognitive value of handwriting.  It was in the Wall Street Journal last fall.  Here’s a bit:

Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, says handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key. She says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory.
Here’s the whole thing for your further perusal:

Scribble, scribble.  I’m so pleased to have neuroscience on my side.

Posted by Sarah Ellis.
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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Written by Hand

  1. saraharonson

    Hi Sarah–
    At the last Novel Writing Retreat, Alum Dana Walrath led an amazing exercise in drawing (with a very lovely graphite pencil). First she told us to shut our eyes. Then (in her very lovely voice), she gave us cues–words and emotions–and we drew. The drawing had a profound effect on a lot of the writers in the room. That pencil to paper connection definitely seemed to tap into the subconscious. And drawing, rather than writing, seemed to have less at stake.

    Thanks for the reminder! Now I’m going to peruse that article.

  2. barbarakrasner

    I started writing fiction — and even nonfiction books — by long-hand after reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. I’m a big proponent of the process.

  3. david elzey

    i’ve never really thought about this before, but i have always planned out, plotted, or made notes for all my writing by hand before touching a keyboard. i don’t think i’ve actually written a complete story or manuscript by hand though i have written substantial sections in notebooks to be transcribed later.

    i think my need to connect hand-to-paper in creating something new comes from my art training. thinking on paper, doodling in sketchbooks, it was always understood that the act of creating visuals was like mental strength training, so it makes sense to me that this would also be true for the word.

  4. sharonvanzandt

    Sarah, love this post. I write much of my fiction long hand, too. It just feels right. And as a teacher, I’ve been concerned about the lower grades letting go of “handwriting.” (One teacher described it as archaic!) This reinforces what I’ve been thinking, though, so thanks!!

  5. Julie Larios

    I wrote a poem once called “Ode to My Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 No. 2” – it was published in Poetry Northwest – a love poem to a pencil! My ideas just don’t come to me at the speed encouraged by a keyboard, and pencils feel more graceful, don’t they? Like the difference between ice skating (pencils) and Roller Derby (computer.) Something like that. Thanks for the link, Sarah!

  6. Uma Krishnaswami

    Oh, you are all reminding me that my love affair with words began when I discovered pencils and paper. Or really, before that, if we must be honest, crayon and wall. But the tactility of the thing was what drew me as a kid. These days I often do start in a notebook, but invariably hit a place where I’m thinking too fast for my dreadful handwriting to keep up with me and then only the keyboard will do. Because the other part of my writing life was the discovery of my dad’s manual typewriter when I was around 6. It was an incredible toy! So the keyboard was every bit as much a part of my way of writing from early on. I wonder what would happen if I tried to draft a whole chapter longhand. Hmm. I wonder if my brain can even do that any more. I should try.

  7. Julie Larios

    Boo hoo. Staedler Norica HB2 is only available in Canada. I will hunt for them next time I come to visit, Sarah.

  8. karibaumbach

    Sarah, at the beginning of the week I was in a rut with a new WIP–had been for longer than I care to admit. After reading your post I took pencil and paper to a comfy chair in the corner and scribbled about the story for a little while. When I went back to my computer I wrote two pages! I did that each morning for the rest of the week–sort of like Cameron’s morning pages but with a focus on story. It worked! I’m up and running again, cognitive function pumping. Sometimes things come just when you need them. Thank you!

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