The Longhand Manifesto

You remember those penmanship lessons long (or not so long) ago? If your handwriting is anything like mine, you'll remember them with dread. I think there's a reason that "cursive" and "curse" share the majority of their letters. And yet I've returned to the age of pen and paper – at least for some of my writing.

Apart from the obvious reasons – it makes me look fashionably retro, and my hieroglyphics thwart any effort to read over my shoulder – there are some less obvious ones why I've taken up the practice after many years of abstinence.

Providence dropped Julia Cameron's "The Right to Write" into my lap. The practice of morning pages has stuck with me. I've since tweaked the concept to fit my own needs, but what it boils down to is journaling without any self-censorship or editing or any pressure to "write well". After a few sputters and misfirings, I've developed a regular practice – and I do my journaling longhand, in stationery's finest. Why?

First of all, a 99c composition book is more portable than a laptop. Yes, I know, I could use a phone or tablet, but a virtual keyboard is just about as useful to me as a virtual meal and less appealing. Did I mention that I suffer from fat finger syndrome and yet refuse to have a gadget tell me what I really meant when I typed wqe8yhalrh? (I don't use spell-check either. My typos are all mine. Mine!)

Practical considerations aside, writing longhand gives me more time to think. Pen or keyboard, I write very fast, but longhand is just that much slower, so my mind can race ahead a little more comfortably and a little farther. I find that the sentences flow onto the page just a little more thought-out and less in need of major overhaul.

Over the years I've found that I do my best thinking with a real pen on real paper. Lately I've expanded the practice from journaling to story planning. I freewrite to work out story logic or to explore my characters' experience. Yes, their emotions, too. Writing by hand gives me more immediacy. I find it easier to let my thoughts flow onto the page uncensored and uninterrupted and largely forgotten as soon as I write them down. Then, when I've dumped the contents of my brain onto the page, I re-read my scribblings, highlight the gems in the garbage and work them into my maunscript.

I find that the method works well as a cattle prod to my creativity. Would I ever write a novel the analog way? Of course not. That's what Scrivener is for.

Writers Have the Power to Change the World

Writers have the power to change the world. When Donald Maass first threw that one out at the 2016 Writer UnBoxed UnConference, my inner skeptic sneered. I kept my expression carefully blank. Sure. My adult fantasy’s going to forever change the way people think. And Saruman lives around the corner. But I dutifully kept taking notes, determined to get as much out of this particular session than I had out of the previous ones, determined to play the game.

The session was about to close, and here was the question: How do you want your novel to change the world? Write it down now. Go! The people around me started scribbling furiously. Me, I just sat there, staring out the window at the wind-blown autumn trees of the Commons in Salem, MA. I was floored. Frozen. When I arrived at the conference a few days earlier, I had a finished manuscript in hand, as good as I could make it, polished and ready to go to an editor. And now? I realized that I didn’t even have a story. Sure, I had a line of events that gelled into a plot. Sure, I had strong characters. There were even some poignant lines and insights, as tends to happen when your subconscious – or maybe your Muse – takes over your fingers on the keyboard. What I didn’t have, however, was a message. I didn’t have a strong, compelling narrative. The third rail had no spark. The story train was stuck in the station.

It was the last session of the last day of the conference. I remember walking out of the room, barely able to talk – which, for me as the quintessential introvert, isn’t all that unusual, but this time, the reason was different. Besides being an introvert, I’m also a very rational person. Emotions, and especially the display thereof, are about as icky to me as grape jelly and twice as cloying.

What had just dawned on me was this: To make my story powerful, to make a reader truly care, I’d have to dig into those emotions. I’d have to feel what my characters would be feeling. What these constructs of my imagination are feeling and what, therefore, I am capable of feeling. I’d rather go without coffee for a month than venture into this particular snake pit. It’s not that I’m a block of ice. On the contrary. It’s my empathy that makes this so difficult. Empathizing with my characters, however made-up they may be, cuts close to the bone. To the core of who I am. Do I really want to be that uncomfortable? That vulnerable?

No. I really don’t. Everything inside me’s screaming to run the other way. But there’s my main character. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a remorseless killer, broken inside and out. Not the kind of person you’d want to have as a friend. Or anywhere within a five-mile radius. And yet, he’s gotten under my skin. Actually, it’s where he originated. He is what I made him. And he doesn’t deserve anything less than my best work.

So here I am, a few months after the conference, profoundly revising a manuscript that I thought complete. Delving into emotions that leave me raw. Writers have the power to change the world. Me? I’ve no idea. I don’t really care. All I know is that writing’s changed my world and will keep doing so for a long time to come.