Why Write by Hand?

This Glittering WorldI attended a book party for T. Greenwood’s new novel, This Glittering World, Saturday night at The Ink Spot. She read the first chapter and I knew when I got home, I’d dive right into the book, I was that caught up in the story. But being the kind of insecure writer that I am, on the drive home I fell into the icky-sticky place of comparing my rough draft of a messy first chapter with Tammy’s beautifully written, compelling, published first chapter. (This is a mistake. Don’t do it. )

After a few agonizing, self-conscious miles, I remembered a conversation Tammy I had a couple of weeks previously at the Annual Local Authors celebration hosted by the San Diego Public Library. A group of us were carrying on about our “process” as we writers tend to do when we get together (I have to leave the house to write; I have to have my Pilot Precise V7, fine point, blue ink; I can’t write a word without my bowl of dried cranberries . . . you probably have your own rites and rituals), and Tammy mentioned that she always writes her first drafts by hand.

“The computer makes it look so neat,” she said. “First drafts are way too messy to look that neat.”

I’m gleeful! A talented, prodigious writer like T. Greenwood who’s published six novels and written a couple more that are stuffed away in a drawer—she writes by hand, too!

People who know me know I’m an outspoken proponent of the write-by-hand method of getting those first raw words on the page. I write about it in my books, encourage it in my writing practice groups, and request students in my classes to at least try a week of writing by hand during our time together.

I take a lot of heat for this.

Why? is a question that inevitably comes up during interviews about writing practice, Why? my students invariably ask in our first class. Why? compulsive NaNoWriMo writers wonder, keyboards clacking. Because, I say, and quote a famous writer whose endorsement of writing-by-hand I scoured from the hundreds of articles and interviews I researched for just such verification. (John Updike, Pablo Neruda, Spalding Gray, bell hooks, Anne Tyler, Clive Barker, William Styron, Paul Auster, Richard Hugo, and now T. Greenwood, to name a few.)

So again, why write by hand? (from A Writer’s Book of Days)

  • Writing is a physical act; you should do it with your body.
  • Writing by hand is sensual; it allows you to feel the movement of pen against paper.
  • You can feel your heart beat when you write by hand; sometimes you can feel the pulse in your fingers. This gives rhythm to your writing.
  • Writing by hand allows you to write with your breath.
  • When you write by hand you slow down enough to write only some of your thoughts. In writing practice, more is not necessarily better.
  • You are more connected to your feelings when you write by hand.
  • Handwriting is alive.
  • You are in control when you write by hand (no low battery, malfunction, save command, or crash can interrupt you).
  • You can write anywhere when you write by hand.

I tell you, you’ll be amazed at what you discover when you write by hand and you might be surprised at how little you edit when you put pen to page instead of fingers to keyboard.

Just for the record, I do sometimes write directly on the computer, this blog post for example, and most of my nonfiction work. But when I want to get out of my own way and let the Muse have her way with me . . . it’s pen in hand, hand to page.

Future post: More about comparing our work to others’ and why it’s such a trap.