Friday, September 17, 2010

The Scratch of Pen on Paper

Cricket McRae


Lately I seem to be reverting more and more to analog behavior. Gone is the sound of Windows loading while coffee brews early in the a.m. Instead, crisp air, birdsong and the sound of pen on paper accompanies my morning caffeine.

The writing callous on my middle finger is in full working order. My addiction to paper, pens and pencils feels not only justified but necessary. Office supply stores aren’t my only bane – just this week I bought two banana paper notebooks at Target. How could I not? Banana paper is treeless, sustainable, and has a slightly rough texture that’s a joy to put pen to. Then there was the thick quad pad from the corner market, because there’s just something about writing on graph paper. Especially really white paper with really blue lines. Perhaps the grid taps into the uber-left brain?

And the Mead recycled notebook from the drug store (also acquired this week) has an olive green cover in textured squares and a thick cardboard back that makes it easy to write in anywhere. As for the Cambridge, burnt-orange composition book with green lines that also made its way into my basket, it’s size and colors evoke a nonfiction project I’m working on.

Each current writing project has a separate notebook. So does each potential project. Something about each notebook usually reminds me of something to do with the project it contains, be it color, shape, light happy design, luscious velvet or purple metallic cover. Inside they are half-filled with random thoughts, clusters of brainstorming, lists, whole scenes, character interviews, bits of dialog, questions to answer, research contacts, ideas to follow up on, and large chunks of free writing.

There could be several reasons for my recent reversion to the old-school methods.

One is that my I-Phone allows me to check – and delete – email from anywhere. Still techie, of course, but much more limited. Now I only respond to email once or twice a day unless something urgent comes up, and even then I can do it from the wee device, albeit in terser than usual language. This has saved me an amazing amount of time as well as the angst that comes from dealing with my crappy Internet connection on an ongoing basis. It also cuts down on online surfing. Now when I come to the computer, it’s to accomplish something in particular. Sometimes that IS surfing, but it’s intentional and usually timed.

Another reason is that I’m trying to pay more attention to the here and now, to the smell of the roses, if you will. Writing by hand gives me the feeling, real or not, of being more connected to my creative process. It’s slower. There is no backspace button. I find myself being more careful about what I’m saying the first time, not in an editorial way, but because I have the time to think more during the actual act of writing. Then when I input the draft into the computer, it’s an instant edit pass.

I’m also simply writing more lately. It’s an autumn thing and happens every year. That means fitting some of that writing in around other activities, sometimes in bits and pieces, ten or even five minutes at a time. I need something even more portable than a laptop.

Neo-Luddite tendencies aside, there’s real satisfaction in the sound and feel of a fountain pen’s nib on the page. Oooh: fountain pen. Doesn’t that sound la-de-da, all tweedy and writerly! Except I use Pilot disposable fountain pens, which aren’t la-de-da at all. I just like how they vibrate slightly against the paper, how the ink lays down in no-nonsense thick lines, the scratching noise they make, and the fact that I can toss them in the garbage when they’re spent. I buy them packs at a time in black, blue, purple and red.

I know lots of people write by hand, especially first draft. Why do you do it? If you’re a tried-and-true keyboard addict, do you ever go to paper when you get stuck, or during outlining or other parts of the writing process?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Cricket, you make writing sound so civilized and genteel. As I read your post, I can hear the sound of your pen again the paper accompanied by chirping birds. It's lovely - truly - but far removed from my process. I haven't hand written anything beyond a check in years, and even that is rare. Scratch that, I do take notes in meetings at work. But that's about it, and those are typed up as soon as the meeting is over.

When I write, I jot notes on a huge white board on the wall next to my computer, and jot a few words on a calendar representing the time line of the story. That's it. Everything else goes straight from my brain out my fingers and into the computer. Even ideas I get for new projects are typed up and printed out and put into a file for the future.

I know a lot of writers do like to hand write their first draft. If I did, it would take me two years to complete a book, maybe longer.

Alan Orloff said...

I'm with you on the graph paper (the latent engineer in me, I guess), but I only hand write stuff when I'm on the go and a laptop isn't feasible. Of course, that's a good thing--my handwriting is atrocious.

G.M. Malliet said...

Target has banana paper notebooks? I am there.

Like you, I have high and inflexible standards for notebooks. The rules or grids can't be too big or too narrow. The paper has to be white and the ink neither too pale nor dark. Blue is infinitely preferable to black or gray. Gray is bad, in fact.

Whenever I go to England, I do a major run on WH Smith stores. They make these notebooks with hard plastic fronts and backs, with a band to hold the pages together. Various colors.

This is a real sickness, you know? Made worse this time of year by all the back-to-school supplies.

Lois Winston said...

I'm with Sue Ann on this. I type everything. I find my thoughts flow faster if I type rather than hand write. And my hands don't cramp up from typing the way the hand holding the pen tends to cramp after a few minutes. Of course it helps to be able to touch type at around 60 words a minute. I can thank that mandatory typing class in 8th grade for that skill!

Cricket McRae said...

Sue Ann, with your incredible productivity I can definitely see why you stick to the keyboard. I'm envious of your white board --they're my favorite way to plan!

Alan, perhaps the latent engineer is combined with a latent doctor re: the handwriting?

Gin, I love WH Smith! It is a disease, isn't it. Btw, Target has really cool file folders, too, with all sorts of geometric designs on them.

Lois, I touch type around 90, which is a little ridiculous. For me, it's nice to slow down sometimes, but I can't realistically produce as much by hand. No doubt I'll be back at the keyboard in a month or so, banging away as our 8th grade teachers hoped. ; - )

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, I envy you, but those are old days I can't get back to. I wrote a whole thesis in pen on yellow legal pads, but now my fingers on the keyboard seem to be diectly connected to my brain. No keyboard to tap on, no words generated.

Beth Groundwater said...

My handwriting has deteriorated over the years, since I rarely write in cursive anymore. I really have to think now to hand-write a note on a card! I've become a faster typist, though. :)

Carol Grace said...

Ooooh, I want one of those banana paper notebooks. As for writing by hand, to avoid cramping follow these rules:
1)Grasp pen loosely.
2)Do not press pen heavily against page.
3)Try out pen before purchasing.
4) Warning. Do not get carried away with your own prose. Pen will have to be pried from your cold fingers.

Darrell James said...

I'm always amazed when I hear that someone actually "writes" a novel. I'm with Beth on this one. I do everything on a lpatop for one simple reason... I can't read my own handwriting.

But it is a rather romantic picture you paint, Cricket.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I write on computer, but like you, I have a separate notebook for each project. I use it to take notes, to brainstorm, and sometimes--if I'm feeling stuck--to write. Putting pen to paper definitely helps me find a fresh perspective.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I used to write on paper, in the good old days before the deadlines came too quickly!

Since it takes twice as long because we have to transcribe our scribbles to Word (well, mine are scribbles, anyway!) then I'm forced to use the computer. But I LOVE writing on paper. And, when I get a block, I'll pull a notebook out.

Cricket McRae said...

Mmmm...yellow legal pads. Fabulous, Keith. I wonder if we'll become more than metaphorically "wired" to our computers in the future.

Beth, I haven't heard the word "cursive" in forever! And I remember back when penmanship was part of getting a good grade on a paper.

Lol, Carol. Good advice -- especially about getting carried away with your own prose!

Romantic, Darrell? Hrm. Add that to Sue Ann's comment that I make writing sound civilized and genteel, and I'm starting to wonder about myself. Mostly I just think of it as messy.

Kathleen, you strike a chord when you mention fresh perspective. I think that's exactly why I've been writing by hand lately.

Elizabeth, when you described writing at the pool or while you're waiting to get the oil changed in your car, I always imagined you writing in a notebook. Now I'll think of you typing away. ; - )