By Hand

I’m thinking of turning off the word processor and going back to pen and paper. That would add difficulty to anything I do for publication or distribution, because much of that requires a digital translation.

What inspired this thought? Not the disadvantages of word processing, though they are worth stating.

  1. It’s too easy to change things. So easy, in fact, that you waste time mulling over the names of your characters, or place names, or whether you’ve described enough, or should delete this and that. You end up making too many “improvements” that rarely move the story forward. I spent ten years working on a novel for mostly that reason. Did I make it “good” enough? Some people liked it.
  2. It’s too easy to lose things. This post is a revision of an earlier one that died when my internet access crashed. I don’t know why it crashed. The only thing that was saved was the first line. My first novel was eaten several times by a faulty hard drive. The drive crashed so often that I developed an irrational fear of page 161,
  3. It’s too easy to be distracted. Any time I need to find out what a piece of furniture could look like, or get an idea of a location or historical period, the internet is a few clicks away and, an hour or two later, I’ve found out half a dozen things, checked e-mail, learned the latest news and, not only is my writing time nearly over, but the energy I had for stringing (if not slinging) words is ebbing. It’s been proven that the blue light from digital screens can be overstimulating. Some writers thrive in work spaces cluttered with music, noise and other distractions. For me, it’s controlled stimulus: music I like, a comfy chair, a window open to let in the breeze on temperate days, a window closed when the neighbor’s dog is barking or lawns are being mowed and, at most, a dictionary for spelling. Anything else is something else.
  4. You have to learn how to do things you don’t want to learn. It took me several years to master WordPerfect, a free gift with a long-ago computer purchase. I gave it up some years back, but I find Microsoft Word institutionally dull. Yes, I know you can liven up with themes, but dull is dull. Every once in a while I either hit the wrong key or something crazy happens and I can’t figure out how to fix it. The need to fix it interrupts the flow. This doesn’t  happen with paper and pen.

What inspired this grumble was the death of our dishwasher. Purchased a few years ago when we triumphantly upgraded our kitchen appliance, it went the way of the previous dishwasher: a motor wore out, whose replacement would cost about two-thirds of what a new one would cost.

We went out and bought a new dishwasher. We had to wait a few days, which meant washing dishes by hand–something I did for most of my youthful, on-my-own existence, which included working in the Oberlin College dining halls, where I did just about every job, including pot washing.

The physical effort involved in cleaning cutlery and cookware can be much more enriching than grumbling at the dried, scuzzy crust your dishwasher can leave on glassware. It’s another connection to the ways in which you please and care for yourself and those you feed. It’s a pause after the meal, or sometime later, when you engage in the restoration of order–you clean things, wait for them to dry, put them back where you found them and, maybe, appreciate what you have a little bit more.

Most writers would agree that writing is too often about the effect the work creates on people, critics, institutions or businesses that are supposed to shower you with fame ‘n’ fortune, or, at least, give you some justification for existence. It’s easy to forget that writing is not so much a process, with a beginning, middle and an end, as it is a continuity: a thing you live for and that, at its best, lives through you. Part of the way you notice (and, perhaps, savor) that continuity is to come in contact with the stuff that you need to write.

For most writers, this stuff is abstract: it’s experience or revelation or discovery that has slipped uncomfortably into memory. The discomfort could be excitement, obsession or just an urge to purge, but it’s still abstract: it’s inside you, somewhere, and transferring it into a thing on a screen becomes putting it somewhere else.

Writing on paper is putting it right there, in front of you, where the distractions, impediments and complexities of what we now call “technology,” don’t exist. You can look at those pages and know that you’ve made them different.

You’ve made your mark. And even if it isn’t good enough, or requires more research, or editing or what editors like to call “some small changes,” it’s still yours. Though machines may have made your pen, pencil or paper, machines had nothing to do with what you have done.

By hand.





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