by Kathleen Bradean
When I think of Jane Austin writing the many drafts of Pride and Prejudice by hand, I get exhausted. She didn’t even have the luxury of a self-inking pen. No wonder only the rich were authors back then. Who else had the time?
Waaay back in the 1980s, when dot matrix printers were almost unreadably light and the paper had those holes in the sides for the printer feed, I’d use a clunky word processor program to write my stories, print them out, then literally cut and paste sentences and paragraphs on a sheet of paper as if I were composing world’s smuttiest ransom note. We had to do that because you could see so little of the page that it was easy to get lost moving paragraphs in the word processing program. Once I had what I wanted, I’d move things around in the word processor, make my other edits, print the latest version, and bring out the scissors to hone the story some more. All of that because I couldn’t bear the thought of writing a story in longhand. You see, I’d lost so much time not being allowed to write through my teens and I had to make it up. I needed the speed computers gave me. Even though I was/am a crap typist, keeping up with the speed of my thoughts was easier on computer than writing longhand.
Almost three years ago, I lost a family member and the person-shaped wound left in our lives has become a black hole. Everything gets sucked into it. Nothing escapes that void. I wanted to write after his death, but couldn’t. My creativity was gone. I tried so hard to put something down but until I was able to figure out the central conflict for the book, there was nothing to write. Normally, my imagination is hard to tamp down, but it was dead. No matter how much time I put into it, I couldn’t imagine a conflict that would work. I made up a few, but knew they wouldn’t support a book. They felt forced. Then writer Nan Andrews was visiting and I, as usual, was bemoaning my inability to write, and she said something that triggered a cascade of imagination. (This is why writers need to get together and talk. Most of us don’t live with other writers, so what we do is so foreign to our families that they can’t begin to know how to help us. Other writers do.)
Even though the ideas were suddenly flowing, I didn’t sit down and try like mad to capture the deluge. I did what I hadn’t done since before the time of computers. I picked up a notebook and a pen and began to write.
I wasn’t writing the story yet. I was telling myself the story. Or, if you prefer, I was writing a synopsis/outline. When I was done, I waited a few days to mull it over, read it again, then picked up a pen and told myself the story again. I knew the weak parts because those are the sections I couldn’t write as specific events. Those passages were more of a “Step twelve: a miracle occurs” comments that were huge red flags of plot weaknesses. The second time I wrote it down, those parts had more detail and were strong enough to support the following events. Soon, I may tell myself the story again. It can only become clearer with each step.
I’ve never been an outliner, at least not a written outline. I always sort of had one in mind as I wrote. But that was a nebulous thing, riding the currents of my imagination and libel to follow the stream of conscience anywhere it flowed. It was ethereal. This hand-written synopsis has a different feel. It’s grounded, and I’m connected to it in a different and very real way. It is an idea, but it is physical, because it flowed from my mind through my hand onto paper. At this point in my writing life, I need this anchor to keep my creativity from falling into the black hole of loss again.
I don’t know if I’ll continue to write by hand, but for now, I like the connection it gives me to the words. I know I’ll never write a whole novel by hand, but this may be my new process. Write a synopsis, write it by hand.
Do you write by hand? Do you get a different feel for the story when you do? Have you changed up your writing methods to adapt to changes in your life?