a creative life, on cellulose.

Here’s a good illustration on what I consider one of the great fringe benefits of writing with a pen: platform-independent record permanence.

At that link, you can download a folder with the collected papers of Delia Derbyshire, the English musician who came up with the electronic version of the original Dr. Who theme.  It contains letters, unpublished sheet music, and copious amounts of sketches and notes, and it’s an interesting insight into one particular creative mind.

I’ve been writing longhand for over a year now.  I only use the computer for the second draft, and for non-fiction.  My fiction brain seems to have rewired itself to the slower, but more elaborate writing style that comes with putting a pen to paper.  (And there really is a difference–in longhand, I think about the sentence just a bit longer, and the resulting work is tighter and less wordy than the stuff I write on the computer.)  Now, I don’t harbor conceits about becoming the world’s preeminent SF author, and having people bid my handwritten drafts up to ridiculous amounts after I’m dead.  (Not that I’d terribly mind all of that, mind you, but I don’t have that kind of ego just yet.)  I’m not even writing longhand primarily because it leaves a record, but because the workflow suits me better, and because it’s physically more pleasant than hacking away at a computer keyboard.

No, what I like is the idea of my kids and grand-kids being able to pull those notebooks off the bookshelf in fifty years, being able to figure out what made the old man tick, and to understand how and what he thought when he did what he did.  I don’t just write the first draft by hand, I also write down all my notes as I put the novel together.  For my current novel, for example, I have a sort of companion notebook with sketches, tables, character notes, diagrams, lists, and all kinds of snippets that won’t ever make their way directly into the novel.  Put that notebook with the handwritten first draft, with its corrections and crossed-out paragraphs, and you’ll be able to get a really good idea of the evolution of the whole story from start to finish–what kind of ideas I was tossing around, which ones I expanded, which ones I dismissed, and so on.  They won’t need to find a computer system in 2060 that can read file formats and media from 2010–all they’ll have to do is take the bound notebook off the shelf, open it, and start reading.

(Yes, I know that Ms. Derbyshire’s papers are out there in electronic form, which seems to undermine the point of my little essay, but the fact remains that there were papers to be scanned and digitized.)

As I said, that’s not the main reason why I write by hand, but it certainly is a pleasing possible fringe benefit.  And if I end up famous enough that someone is willing to buy those drafts off my grandkids after I’m gone, and they’ll be able to buy themselves a pair of loaded 2061-model Government Motors HydroVettes, they will be thankful for the day Opa switched to ink and paper for his first drafts and notes.


3 thoughts on “a creative life, on cellulose.

  1. Jeff says:

    You’re right on the money. The only difference is I use a manual typewiter and edit with a fountain pen. Same church, different pew. If I want a clean first draft, I use carbon paper to make a copy. However, the posterity is for my sake. I never know when I might want to reference some notes or a scene or description. This morning I was looking at a manuscript that never sold. The computer that was used is lost to time and the OS is twenty years out of date. But I was smart enough to keep a few hardcopies. I take the same approach to photography. Relying on electronics and digital for longevity is a fool’s game.

    Another advantage of handwriting is using period writing tools. Years ago I wrote feature stories for our local paper. One story was about a colonial fair, circa 1750. I wanted to capture the feel and pace of the period. I was getting nowhere on the keyboard until I thought to use old tools. I sat down with a quill pen I happened to have, a bottle of ink and wrote the draft by candle light. The words just flowed. (I won’t mention what the bloody editor did with my golden words.) I took a similar approach with a story about a Civil War battlefield tour except I used a steel nib dip pen and wrote it outside. I know this is a bit weird, but it worked and hey! it’s me! And it was fun.

  2. Chris Smith says:

    It’s odd, because my experience was completely different. I am not a professional writer, but I do enjoy it. I tend to self-edit as I go. Writing my essays down on paper makes it into an exercise in frustration as I scribble, cross out, erase, and draw lines to move phrases, sentences, and paragraphs around on a page. The electron enables me to make those changes while preserving the readability of my project.

    If I need to preserve an archival version before proceeding, there is always the “save as” function. Producing a hard copy “for posterity” is no further way than the nearest printer. And, I can do it on the run, pretty much anywhere I want to. This is why God made MacBook Pros and broadband wireless cards.

    So what it all boils down to, really, is having access to whatever means necessary to get one’s creative juices flowing. For me, that means electrons and silicon chips.

    • Jeff says:

      When I did technical or business writing, usually under tight deadlines, I had to edit on the run even with the first draft, just as you describe. (This was handwritten and turned over to the ladies in the typing pool who entered the text on dedicated word processors. Even page numbering was manual. If you haven’t been through this process, be grateful.)

      However, with creative writing, especially fiction, I find editing on the run is distracting and completely kills my creativity and production. If I think it, the words go on the paper. A lot of it will be crap and weeded out when editing but at least there is text to be edited.

      Using my 1950 Underwood typewriter eliminates distractions and lets me concentrate on the words because self editing is so difficult. I take the same approach with a fountain pen. One advantage, from my point of view, is having an immediate hard copy without dealing with the electronic vagaries of computers and printers. I also find the slightly slower pace conducive to better writing. There’s nothing right or wrong with my approach or yours, it’s just whatever works for the individual.

      I find there’s a sensual involvement in using the older writing tools. It might be the pleasurable feel of a fountain pen gliding across the paper. It might be the slight effort of pressing the typewriter keys, the sound of the type slugs hitting the paper or the sound of the bell at the end of each line. These things make me feel more involved in the writing process and add to my enjoyment. Philosophically, I like the idea of a tool that does just one thing, but does it very well. Again, these are strictly personal preferences.

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