On Writing Longhand

When we write by hand, we make a unique imprint of ourselves upon the world. This statement in an article in the latest edition of New View* brought me up short. I’ve always written first drafts longhand but since there’s at least five years between each book, it’s not an experience I have too often. With shorter pieces I tend to write now straight to screen. If at my desk, it’s on my fabulously cinematic Mac but when away from the desk I’ll use the Alphasmart Neo, which I adore, since it is close to the longhand experience (all keyboard, very little screen, can’t edit as you go), close but not close enough. Real longhand is when a pen or pencil pushes into paper. When you can hear it, feel it, smell it and, if inclined, taste it.

The problem with writing on the computer is that it all comes out looking so neat. Neat as print. It is thought-to-book with little in between. There is a problem with that, not immediately obvious, at least I have a problem with it: memory. I’m forgetting what I’m writing/have written. It’s not only creation that longhand makes an impression on, it’s the brain of the writer.

If my memory were better, I’d know where to find the following quote, but somewhere in an essay Ted Hughes says that writing longhand is a right-brain activity like art. The very sound of the pen on paper, as gentle as pattering rain, activates the right hemisphere.

Some time last year, when embarking on my current project, I ritually if not ceremonially bought a stack of school exercise books off Amazon which have been in the drawer ever since. Now I’ve pulled one out and am half-way through it. I can use it in the writing hut or, given the season, somewhere more cosy indoors. When it’s all written out, as now, then it’s off to the computer to rewrite and edit as you go, legitimate left brain activities.

Writing book sized

You have the freedom to write on the page any way you want. No formatting skills required! You can link ideas with long arrows or cross out errors and make notes to yourself in the margin. When stuck for a word or thought, you can break off and draw the cat. Because of that creative freedom, the ideas are better when you write longhand.

Writing book detail sized 2

There’s another benefit. Short pieces like this tend to get written in advance in the mind, usually while the rest of me is asleep. If I sit down at the computer, I forget many of the ideas that were bubbling up over night; suddenly the brain is frozen by the prospect of having to produce something that looks printed. Writing longhand, the ideas unravel in memory. Indeed, such is the sense of unravelling that I suspect all ideas, notes, pre-writings are stored on scrolls, as in an ancient library and that’s what Memory is – an ancient library, not a database.

*’Mysteries of the Written Word’ by Richard Bunzl, New View, Summer 2013.

4 thoughts on “On Writing Longhand

  1. My problem, my sight is so bad I can’t read my handwriting – because I can’t see too well to write it in the first place. I have never had decent handwriting – again because of my short-sightedness. My first year at school no one realised I needed glasses. The fact that I kept falling over things, had to have the easy-reder books an inch from my nose, couldn’t see the blackboard (& couldn’t even see to thread a needle in needlework class – especially given that we were using big needles!) should have been a bit of a give-away.
    My vision without glasses was about 1 inch from my nose. You need to be able to see to be able to write…. thank goodness for my computer and a large font! Otherwise – I completely agree with you *laugh*

  2. Excellent observations! I have a number of notebooks that loiter on a shelf in the kitchen that I think I shall dust off and get writing in now – I often have ideas in the middle of the night about blog entries that have evaporated come daylight. (Hence my failure to update my blog very often.) Plotting and development ideas are always best done with arrows and at strange angles, I suspect.🙂

    • Notebook organisation is a subject in itself. Finding my diary empty for October yesterday, yet convinced I’d been making entries, I found them in three separate notebooks. It’s all very well making notes, but processing them – that’s the art!

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