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Monday, September 08, 2008



Here's a secret: for someone who makes a living writing, I'm really lousy with a pen.

I've had bad handwriting since, well, since I could write. My first primary school was a rather old-fashioned place where the teachers had few namby-pampy ideas about denting a child's confidence, and consquently I was getting my writing roundly criticised from the age of about five; I remember rather clearly a teacher commenting on my nicely-finished sewing project by saying, 'I don't understand it, your handwriting is so messy and your sewing is so neat' - and finding it an entirely justified remark, which suggests I was already used to hearing that, in the physical sense, I really didn't write very well.

Looking back, I'm a little narked - I mean, five is a bit early to condemn someone's handwriting permanently, and if they'd decided to catch me up they might at least have solved the problem that I was holding pen all wrong (a habit that lasted into my teens because nobody caught it) - but, well, it was a long time ago and I was in small school taught by two elderly ladies whose methods were from even longer ago, so it was what it was. (One of them still slapped pupils when they got on her nerves - not as a formal corporal punishment, but just because she'd lose her temper and lash out. At the time, we kids didn't think much of it, as her self-control abilities were about the same as our own. In retrospect, she was much too old to be teaching and should have retired, but I think she had little family and teaching was her main prop. It's rather sad, from an adult perspective. The other was very kind, though.) And if you look at my handwriting now, honesty compels me to admit that it's pretty poor, so perhaps they were right.

However, the fact remains: I really can't handle a pen. When I turned eighteen I spent a year studying cooking and had to take a lot of lecture notes, which changed my handwriting from joined-up to printed under the pressure of needing legible notes, and now I have a fairly disjointed scrawl. The pen slips and slides all over the page, disobliging me in every direction; I just don't understand how some people manage to control it. In Middlemarch, George Eliot remarks that 'the end of Mr Brooke's pen was a thinking organ'; the end of my pen is making continual escape attempts.

Does this have an effect on my writing? I've been wondering about that. I write three 'morning pages' every day, as recommended by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, and those are done by hand; it's an extremely useful exercise, and while it generally produces ramblings about how I need to get the door fixed, with occasional bursts of insight into how to solve plot problems or personal revelations, the fact that it's done by hand is helpful. There's something informal about writing by hand that loosens you up.

In the past I used to write difficult scenes by hand, feeling that this would give them more emotional tone. Since taking to writing morning pages, I do that less; I feel that the three pages of handwriting loosen me up enough, but there's no saying I won't try it again in the future. But for the most part, I type.

What are the effects of typing? Well, a minor one I've noticed is that I'm more prone to 'typos' when I'm using a pen; sometimes I reverse letters in mid-word, which I never used to do before I learned to type.

More seriously, though, there's a low-level running debate among writers as to whether typing is as good a method as handwriting. It's been my experience that there are a lot of merits on both sides. In terms of managing nerves, I find using a computer soothing: looking at a blank page, there's always a running count of how much of it you've filled, which can trigger a permanent sense of 'I've hardly started' when I'm feeling especially nervy. My best way of dealing with that is to use a battered notebook - if it's already been used, it feels like part of a continuum rather than a whole new enterprise, and if it's shabby I don't have to get all perfectionist about its contents - but a computer allows for a greater sense of continuum: once you've got half a page of document, it's all scrolling down from then on.

Similarly, writing on a computer has an instant freedom of change. In Writers Dreaming, Sue Grafton comments: 'The beauty of word processing, God bless my word processor, is that it keeps the plotting very fluid. The prose becomes like a liquid that you can manipulate at well. In the old days, when I typed, every piece of typing paper was like cast in concrete.' If you don't like something, you can remove it forever without leaving an ugly scrawl on the page; it allows you to let go quickly and cleanly, which frees you to move forward. It's not the same for everyone, of course; David Sedaris says in 'Nutcracker.com' from Me Talk Pretty One Day that '...I don't want a computer. Unlike the faint scurry raised by fingers against a plastic computer keyboard, the smack and clatter of a typewriter suggests that you're actually building something. At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.' Some people like the fluidity of computers and some don't; personally I do, a lot of the time, because the insubstantiality of words on a computer screen feels like a good setting.

Thoughts aren't substantial, they are, literally, notional, and so setting down insubstantial thoughts in an insubstantial way feels free to me. I've committed myself to a lighter medium, and by the time it gets down to actual stacks of paper, it's my publishers sending me a marked-up manuscript, which means somebody's already accepted the book and committing myself to it at least has somebody's blessing. I actually rather dread shuffling stacks of paper; I'll always make a mess at some point and the sheer volume is rather overwhelming: it's always shocking to see how big a stack of paper my latest novel demands. Books are printed both sides in smaller format on, I think, thinner paper, so the three-inch pile on your desk turns into a perfectly manageable novel once it's printed and bound - ah, binding, the beautiful spine that stops the pages slipping all over the place - but the interim page can be pretty intimidating. The biggest problem with print-outs, though, is that there's never enough room per page for many words. I type single-spaced and then double-space it out at the last minute; that makes it easier on the publisher's eyes, but it does mean that not very much happens per page - and then to get on to what happens next, I don't just have to turn the nicely-bound leaf with an insouciant flick, I have to pick up the sheet, turn it over, lay it on the opposite stack, check that I didn't just put it back in the wrong place, tidy the opposite stack up so that all the sharp paper edges aren't sticking out to bite me when I'm not prepared, and then turn back to what I was reading. The turning-to-reading proportions of manuscript work are high, and it breaks my concentration. I start missing my computer, where it's all one long motion and all I have to do is scroll down.

The non-physicality of computers, in short, can be an aid to concentration. While I write awkwardly, I type fast and well, so when I'm working well my fingers move automatically and I'm not really aware of any physical process at all. I don't have to struggle to keep up with my thoughts. Handwriting forces you to slow down, to experience writing as physical. When you're trying to warm yourself up, that's enormously helpful, especially when you're not quite sure what you want to say. This is where the computer screen is at a disadvantage. The trouble is, it's bright: when you're feeling stuck, it just stares at you, an infinity of possible bytes. A page, on the other hand, demands far less commitment. There's only so much you could put on it anyway, and with handwriting as messy as mine it's always going to be the ink-and-paper equivalent of a mud pie no matter what I actually say; I can get down on it and say anything I like with a limited sense of threat, because it's so undemanding an environment.

Typing is great when I'm in flight and the words are unfolding, but when I need to hunker down, I need a page. I don't think I've ever solved a serious plot problem by typing it out, but pushing back the keyboard, picking up a pen and writing it out is my most dependable way of solving things. I could type it - 'Okay, so what's my problem here? Well, Susan needs to find out where the treasure's hidden, but the Red Baron has hypnotised her into losing all her sense of curiosity. How am I going to resolve this? What could reawaken her sense of - well, there's that childhood scene I wrote a while back where her brother tried to teach her about frogs, I suppose I could have a scene where she encounters a frog and remembers that sense of enquiry. And you know, I could bring the old gardener back into that scene, I need to use him more - yes! I know! The old gardener can be the former house manager who knows where the treasure is!' - or something to that effect, but somehow it never works on the screen. When I need to solve a plot problem, I hunch over the page.

A lot of it is physical position. Bending over a page, bad for you back though it might be, is a braced position, a safe one. You and the page are very close, and the world can whistle over your head; it's a posture not unlike ducking down to shelter from the wind. It's also a position of physical contact: there's a direct line from the page up the pen to your hand, which is close to your face as you bend. You could draw a line up from the page to your eyes without having to skip over any space. Typing, on the other hand, involves poise. It's a three-cornered balancing act: your hands, eyes and screen form a triangle, a much more open stance, into which you can let your thoughts run. To me, handwriting is for digging down, typing is for flight: in terms of elements, the two are earth and air, and there are times when you need both.

What's your experience?

My experience? That my terrible handwriting should have been a tipoff for my dyslexia. And that I physically can't think while writing using a pen/pencil.
Handwriting is just too slow for me. If I'm working on a problem plot point, typing on my laptop allows me to go stream of consciousness which is kind of liberating.
Sometimes even in my journal I find my own handwriting too distracting and then have to switch to keys. On the other hand, for brainstorming it has to be on paper, the messier the better.
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