By John Pipkin, Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty
Writers tend to like stories about the way that other writers write, the processes and habits and superstitions and the curious little quirks that define a writer’s methods. And bound up with this interest in writerly process, there is also a related obsession with something less glamorous, less romantic: speed.
You’ll find no shortage of articles and workshops and festivals offering strategies for how to write a novel in a week, a month, a year, and similarly a quick internet search will turn up plenty of stories, sometimes misleading, about how quickly some novels were written, or how long other novels took to complete. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro supposedly wrote the critically acclaimed, prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day in just four weeks. Four weeks! Ah, but this was just how long the sloppy first draft took. Revisions, of course, took several more years…
Still, there is an allure, and a real advantage, to getting the first draft written as quickly as possible, and of the many strategies you might come across, there’s one that may at first seem unlikely (or at least it seemed so to me).
I wrote my first two novels in the typical modern fashion: at the keyboard of my laptop computer. And this would seem to be the most expedient way—it’s all going to wind up in the computer anyway, right, so why engage in some arduous and pretentious Luddite practice of writing by hand with crayons on cocktail napkins and then typing everything in afterward (and ultimately adding an extra step in the writing process)?
But when I began writing my third novel, I wasn’t struggling so much with speed as with concentration. I felt that something in my process had changed. (And here will follow a string of mundane and obvious observations.) Like most people, I found that I now took care of all the tedious obligations of daily life on my laptop: answering emails, writing syllabi and lesson plans, grading student papers, updating my website, surfing the internet, downloading music, listening to music, buying airplane tickets, shopping for shoes, following social media, paying bills, paying taxes, etc., etc. All of these things I did in front of the same little screen, and then when I sat down to begin working on a novel at the same keyboard, which was still greasy with fingerprints from when I had paid that month’s mortgage, well, it was a little hard to feel inspired…
Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond (Image from the book “A Journey Through Literary America”)
Creativity requires a time and place and space to do its work. And I’m not just talking about having a cabin in the woods and few months’ vacation (although that is always a nice thing to dream about). I’m simply talking about finding a demarcated space—a zone, perhaps—in which to do nothing else but creative work. A dedicated place. An untarnished place.
So I decided to try writing the first draft of my next novel by hand.
My hope was that the experience of writing by hand, which is not something that I regularly do at great length in any other way, would somehow make it easier to think clearly and creatively. (I usually don’t even write on student papers anymore, since most of my undergraduate students are no longer taught to write or read cursive—gasp!) I hoped that the act of sitting down with a pencil and opening a notebook would somehow send a Pavlovian signal to my brain, telling those neurons responsible for creative thought that they better start salivating since I was about to start writing something unrelated to the other kinds of writing I do throughout the day. (Yeah, I’ve mixed up a bunch of different metaphors here, but I’m typing this at my computer, so, you know, it’s not clean space…)
In order to further distinguish this creative work from other work, I fetishized the objects I would be using: a weighty, metal barreled mechanical pencil, a big white art eraser, and identical Moleskine graph-paged notebooks. And none of these would be put to use for anything other than writing the new book. All of this may sound a little silly and precious, but this arrangement effectively distanced creative writing from the rest of the day. It really did feel like doing something completely different, separate from other kinds of work. I looked forward to the feel of the etched metal grip of the pencil between my fingers. Using the big soft eraser brought unexpected satisfactions. My posture at the desk changed—the discouraging neck and shoulder cramps that I had begun to associate with writing for long periods at the laptop completely disappeared.
Writing by hand made it possible not only to clear a space on my desk, free of internet and email distractions, but also to clear a space in my head, since I knew there was only one kind of thinking I was going to be doing when writing in the notebooks. There is a tactile, organic feeling in the experience, one that reminds you that you are actually doing something, creating something, making something where nothing existed before. My cramped Catholic-grade-school handwriting is certainly nothing elegant to look at, but I found myself adding little flourishes to the loop at the bottom of a “g” or “y” and giving the letter “p” a boisterous balloon head, and when rereading the work from a few days before, it was sometimes evident which passages had been written happily and with great energy since the shape of the writing itself reflected the mood in which it was written. (And the same was true of those pages where the narrative was written in a moment of dissatisfaction—in those passages the writing sometimes looked tired, sullen, forced.) Writing by hand also encouraged other forms of narrative expression within the manuscript, marginal doodles, sketches, long arrows connecting one idea to another, graphic maps representing the overall structure of the plot. The manuscript began to feel more dynamic and alive than how it tends to look on a glowing screen.
But the most surprising consequence of writing by hand was that this process actually made it possible to write the first draft faster. Yes, faster. It might seem at first that writing by hand would be a much slower process than typing, but it changed the way I approached the draft. On the computer screen, each draft looks pretty much the same as every subsequent draft—and sometimes the page-layout-view mimics the look of a finished page well enough to have the seductive effect of convincing us that a rough draft is more polished than it really is. But by comparison, a handwritten rough draft clearly announces itself as a rough draft; there is no way to pretend that it is anything more than what it really is, and so I felt disinclined to polish and rework and revise each sentence as I went, since it was obvious, in a very visceral way, that all of this would need to be revised later, and that much of it would never make it into the final version. It’s much harder to distract yourself with deleting, spell-check, or cutting-and-pasting when you’re writing by hand, so you really have no choice but to keep moving forward. The handwritten draft gives you permission to write a rough draft. And this, in turn, can increase the speed at which you are able to get the first draft on the page, since you won’t be getting caught up in prematurely revising and rewriting. Perhaps more importantly, the process of writing by hand also influenced the style and content of my writing to a certain degree, especially in terms of pacing and flow. I found myself spending less time getting bogged down in detail and description, since the momentum of the pencil—combined with the fact that I was not pausing to revise–kept things moving forward at a faster clip, which also made it easier to capture ideas as they flitted past.
I am usually a fairly slow writer, but in the end, writing by hand made it possible to finish the first draft of the new book, roughly 140,000 words, in about 18 months. It is a rough draft. A very rough draft. The whole manuscript took a few more months to be typed into a computer for revision, and now the serious revisions will, no doubt, take a couple of years, so I won’t claim that writing by hand will necessarily shorten the overall length of time that it takes to write a novel. But the hardest part of writing a novel is often just getting the first draft down on the page, and writing by hand can not only help you clear a space for writing and bring more focus to this early stage, but might also help you capture those ideas more quickly before they get away.
John Pipkin is the author of two novels, Woodsburner and The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter. He is the Director of the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at The University of Texas at Austin, and he teaches fiction in the Spalding low-residency MFA Program. You can follow John on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.