when in writing doubt: tip of the week number two

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A few days ago, I wrote here of what is gained when we, mid-course into a new book, return to its beginning. How, when we dwell with what has already been written, when we don't rush toward the climax, the close, the I'm done!, we discover the true heart of the story. We find all that will propel us to a meaningful end.

Plus, it's really fun.

Today, again, I offer simple advice, on the theory that it's the simple stuff that we tend to overlook when we find ourselves in the heat of writerly angst.

That advice: Take out a pen. Take out a notebook. Write the story by hand.

There are a few reasons for this. One, obviously, away from the computer, you are, hopefully, away from the tempting distractions that electronically creep in. But even more importantly, as this Maria Konnikova story in the New York Times suggests, writing something down, using our own hands, pressing into the page beneath us, does something to our brains. It activates neural networks that are key to the making of stories:
The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.
I always write by hand. The first draft of everything is a mess of ink on scattered journals. It is my head working, my hand trailing behind, nothing much, until it becomes something very much. I'll sneak back the computer when I have a few pages. I'll type a vague resemblance of the handwritten material there—clean it up, straighten it, do some logic tests. But then, again, I print those computer pages and I'm back on the couch, scratching out most everything, writing in the margins. Back and forth, this is the process.

The best stuff—the best details, dialogue chains, discoveries—is always the result of a pen in hand.

And only after I've done this many times, do I share the work with my editor, Tamra Tuller. Our conversation about how we work after that is here.

3 comments:

Serena said...

I find I write better poetry by hand than on the computer

Mieke Zamora-Mackay said...

This tip hits close to home. I do this when I feel particularly worried and fearful about what I am writing.

Helene Jermolajew said...

Great tip and so true. I always write my poetry by hand until I feel it's complete and only then type it up into the computer for safe keeping and to await re-reading and perhaps polishing much later.

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