I am fascinated by how writers write and how the process of writing has changed with the advent of technology, from the pen and typewriter which dominated until comparatively recently, to now, where in theory, one could write a novel on a tiny handheld phone. Some writers still write in longhand, believing that they work better that way, sometimes for practical reasons: to avoid distraction or because pen and paper do not need batteries, but also because they feel there is an intangible relationship between mind, hand, implement and creation.
Stephen Fry’s recommendations for writing poetry include:
“Buy a notebook, exercise book or jotter pad and lots of pencils (any writing instrument will do but I find pencils more physically pleasing).”
JK Rowling says she
“still likes writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason I prefer a black pen to a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use narrow feint writing paper.”
Jackie Collins’s Goddess of Vengeance comprised of 2000 handwritten pages. An assistant then types the work and Collins edits that version. She says
“I write in longhand. It takes me a long, long time to write my books. I do a lot of things on the computer but when it comes to writing I want that black felt tip pen and I want that yellow legal pad and I’m good to go anywhere in the world.”
Cecilia Ahern, author of PS I Love You, uses
“pen and paper because I love the physical act of writing – and that you can sit down anywhere and do it longhand without worrying about low batteries or Internet connections. I can write pretty much anywhere.”
These writers stress the practicality of longhand but are also specific about what they prefer: Rowling’s ‘black pen and narrow feint writing paper’, Collins’s ‘black felt tip and yellow legal pad’, while Ahern emphasises ‘the physical act of writing’. There seems to be, for some writers, a relationship between brain, hand, implement, paper and, crucially, what is actually written, something corporeal but mysterious that affects what eventually appears on a mechanically printed page.
Many writers admit when asked that most common of questions
“Where do your ideas come from?”
that they don’t know. Stephen King says
“and we know we don’t know…your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.”
Ideas have ‘shown up’ to writers ever since people have told stories; before writing was reproduced and printed, stories were told from memory. Until very recently, mechanical aids were not used for writing; Shakespeare, we know, used a quill pen. It was said that he never blotted a line,
“Would that he had blotted a thousand”
said Ben Jonson, a statement of both envy and respect.
Even in the office “paper still matters” according to Phyllis Korkki in the New York Times. She cites David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, describing paper as
“in your face. Paper reminds us that we’re physical beings, despite having to contend with an increasingly virtual world,”
“People complain that writing by hand is slow, but that can be good for thinking and creating. It slows us down to think and to contemplate and to revise and recast. Its physical presence can be a goad to completing tasks, whereas computer files can easily be hidden and thus forgotten.”
Some of his clients are returning to paper planners for this very reason. Although Allen does much of his writing on a computer, there are still times when writing with a fountain pen on a notepad
“allows me to get my head in the right place.”
Getting one’s head in ‘the right place’ is a difficulty most of us experience daily, but for a writer, having one’s head in the wrong place is probably the greatest obstacle to creation. So does the method of writing affect the process of getting the head in smooth writing mode? And what is the right place? To simplify matters for my purpose here, let’s just describe it as that blessed state where writing flows effortlessly. And to simplify further let us abandon the office, journalism too, and concentrate on the novelist.
John Steinbeck, in his Journal of a Novel, described writing as
“a strange and mystic business. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most.”
Steinbeck always wrote longhand with pencil and felt that
“sometimes when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness.”
That unconsciousness may well describe those periods when something else takes over (the Muses?) and we write as if driven by something other than ourselves, when a story becomes autonomous and seems to unfold in a way that it decides, rather than being controlled by the writer. In 1951, when Steinbeck wrote East of Eden, he could have used a typewriter. Did he, like many other writers, even today, find that writing flowed more through this relationship between hand, implement and paper than via a machine?
Steinbeck certainly had a minor obsession with pencils. In his Journal of a Novel, the diary he kept of the process of writing East of Eden, he wrote
“For years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was never the pencils but me. A pencil that is all right some days is no good another day. For example yesterday, I used a special pencil soft and fine and floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I used the same kind. And they crack on me. This is the day I am stabbing the paper. So today I need a harder pencil. I have my plastic tray you know and in it three kinds of pencil for hard writing days and soft writing days. Only sometimes it changes in the middle of a day, but at least I am equipped for it. I have also some super soft pencils which I don’t use very often because I must feel as delicate as a rose petal to use them. And I am not often that way.”
Steinbeck complained that pencils were a great expense to him and that he used at least sixty a day. His best friend was the electric pencil sharpener,
“I have never had anything that I used more and was more help to me. I like to sharpen them all at once and then I never have to do it again that day.”
But he had another motive:
“I have lost the sense of rush with which I started and that is exactly what I intended to do.”
If, as Steinbeck suggests, no progress has taken place in writing since The Book of the Dead, does how we write make any difference? Will technology, the ease with which the physical book can be produced, along with automatic spelling and grammar checks produce better or worse writers? And does writing with pen or pencil improve one’s writing? Is it an aid to thinking and inspiration?
Half of the chapters in my first book were written with pen and paper. I use a Grey Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint 0, 5. I find the effect very similar to a pencil and of course it never needs sharpening and is good for a hundred pages or so. I keep a constant supply, always having at least ten in reserve. I can’t write with anything else; I find writing with a ballpoint resistant to flow. I do love pencils but can only write a few lines (I press too hard) before a sharpener is needed to restore a pleasing feel and appearance to my words.
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner for Literature, uses a graph paper notebook. He writes one full page, and then leaves the next page blank for revisions. I too like this method. Despite using a computer most of the time now, I still prefer to edit on paper, printing off a few pages and making changes with a red pen before adding them back into the screen version. I find reading and editing much easier on paper; everything is much clearer to me and the edits feel more satisfying that way – they feel right. There is certainly something very natural to writing on paper, something lacking on the screen, and I feel it’s much easier to miss errors on screen, errors which leap off the page on paper. Despite their convenience, particularly for holiday reading, I am unable to read more than a few pages of books using a Kindle or other software aids. I get no pleasure from it – something important is missing.
Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-British novelist, organises and writes his novels with pen and paper. Only when the novel is complete does he type his own pages; before that he uses flow charts, folders of narratives, plot and narrators in a two year process – all hand-written with edits in pencil. John le Carré prefers to write his novels in longhand; he says that he’s allergic to computers. He writes from 4 a.m. until midday, when his wife types up the day’s work. All Le Carré’s papers were kept in a barn until he donated 85 boxes of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Much can be learned from paper manuscripts about a writer’s methods and thought processes that cannot be easily discovered from a computer. Of course, once deciphered an archive can be simplified and made available on line, but that archive would not be available in the first place without the meticulous, handwritten record.
Many of my ideas and parts of stories are in notebooks which are easily found and referred to. I find these much more accessible than those in my computer, where I have more than a thousand files containing one-line ideas, chapters, potential blogs, articles and short stories. I sometimes find stuff on my computer that I think is good and wonder who the author was, then I realise that I wrote it, often many years previously. Opening a computer folder full of files, I can’t remember what work goes with the titles given to each piece and it is very time consuming to open and check each file, whereas flicking through the pages of labelled notebooks is easier, quicker, more efficient and satisfying. For me it is, anyway. I’m sure the technically proficient could show me more efficient ways of storing work on a computer, but I think I would still come across five year old work that I’d forgotten about that would have been worth pursuing. Perhaps I’m just hopelessly disorganised and anti-technology, but I find books and notebooks a better method of storing and retrieving information.
Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen blogs on the computer, but for novels, only pen and paper will do. She uses a Bic pen and sheets of unlined paper. Comfortable composing articles at the keyboard, she struggles with novels, finding that she wastes too much time
Gerritsen appreciates pen and paper for its physical properties:
“I like knowing that once the ink’s on the page, it can’t magically disappear when the power goes out. I like being able to write notes in the margins.”
This is not to suggest that everybody should suddenly revert to using pens and pencils. Nor am I implying that those writers using longhand are better writers, or that keyboard writers are worse. I am merely theorising about the mysterious source of inspiration (my blog on Muses) and its possible relationship to the physical process of actual writing, rather than typing. Computers are fantastic aids to general writing, for most business uses, for journalists, for articles and those with deadlines.
Whether one writes longhand or not, pens and notebooks remain indispensable; I always carry both. Watching TV, I have an open notebook beside me for those ideas which come from the news or drama or just arrive from nowhere. You think
‘that’s a great idea. I’ll work on that later’
but you won’t – you’ll forget. The best ideas come only once; they vanish as quickly and easily as they arrive. They must be recorded somewhere, quickly. Perhaps some writers make notes in their phones or other gadgets, but what if the idea needs expanding? You can’t draw arrows, margin notes and fast alterations with a gadget. Not yet anyway. Writers who use longhand speak vaguely of a physical relationship, physical properties, hard and soft writing days, the physical act of writing, a physically pleasing aspect. There is something there, but we are not sure what it is, how to describe it or why it helps. What I am getting at here is that the pencil (or pen) is an aid to the imagination. It is certain that even some modern novelists still prefer to write this way; when it comes to creating something more than the quotidian it appears that for some, only pen and paper will do.