I have a confession to make. The content of my email inbox, with the exception of pictures of my nephews and the blogs I subscribe to, is uninspiring. My virtual letterbox tends to be filled with bills, receipts and reminders. Emails save time and money, yet still I long for days past. I’d like to cut down on the amount of missives I receive, and replace them with more satisfying ones. I’d choose fewer but longer emails over the perfunctory electronic communication of today in a heartbeat. What a joy it is to pour over rare long emails, the ones filled with delicious titbits of news and sensual descriptions of new experiences, reminiscent of the letters of old. Snail mail is even better. How wonderful to sink into a sofa, tuck your legs up under you and tear open a letter from afar, to see the ink smudges and individual characteristics of the lettering and for time to stop as you ingest the words on the page. I save handwritten letters. To me, they show love and thoughtfulness. Emails, in contrast, are a nuisance, another item on the to do list, an emblem of our throw away society. My finger is already hovering above the delete button before I’ve even finished reading them.
Up until the end of my degree writing longhand came naturally. Yet ten years on my handwriting is an eyesore. When writing greeting cards I have to take great care to ensure my scrawl is legible to others. I seldom sign my own name anymore, and when I do, lack of practice means my signatures bear only a passing resemblance to each other. My fingers have become lazy, as if they have lost the fine motor skills needed to write neatly. Despite the regression in my handwriting, my stationery collection grows by the day. My writing space is filled with beautiful notebooks and pens. A calligraphy set and wax seal kit adorn my desk. I have begun to wonder whether the growing mountain of stationery reveals a subconscious desire to return to old school drafting.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not a technophobe. I spend most of my day a finger’s breadth away from either a laptop or phablet. I wonder though whether it is wise to carelessly toss handwriting skills onto the rubbish pile. With the introduction of tablets into some schools, I don’t want handwriting to be treated like Latin is sometimes (I enjoyed Latin at school and find the grammar of other languages relatively easy because of my basis in it): a relic from the past. Will there ever come a day when it is an advantage on CVs not to boast of typing prowess but to proclaim the beauty of our handwriting? In generations to come will lovers send each other captioned selfies rather than handwritten love letters? Will there come a time when our great-grandchildren will be compelled to resurrect an ancient skill because in a world of power shortages it is no longer viable to have so many gadgets?
We don’t have to propel ourselves into the future to uncover reasons for us to maintain longhand writing skills. Scientists have long since made the link between writing by hand and faster absorption of information. Studies have shown it to combat age-related mental decline. But what are the advantages of longhand for writers? Research has shown that writing by hand taps into the right side of the brain, linked to intuition and creativity. Scribbling on post-it notes, a sketch pad or in a notebook is not linear writing and may be a better fit for the way we think. Craft books often extol the virtues of undertaking monotonous activity such as walking, driving and gardening to aid creativity. When writing Haruki Murakami runs and/or swims each day. It seems that when we are carrying out an activity that does not need much mental thought, ideas can come to us unbidden. Perhaps writing by hand has the same effect.
It’s all trial and error of course. One writer’s process is not going to be your magic formula. Your choice of writing instruments may change dependent on your mood and location, and the needs of your particular project. Writing by hand, even if only for a few hours (oh the ache after exams at school and university), takes its toll. I’ve never minded transcribing handwritten short stories but with writing time at a premium, typing a longer work seems like an unnecessary extra step, although I would imagine that dictation software might help and in any case it would be like taking a leap in the editing process.
It’s folly to assume, as I have done in the past, that writing on a computer is the most efficient way. Take my love of Scrivener, for example. It’s a fantastic organisational tool and satisfies my need for a clean work space. I prefer to start work in a tidy environment: our house, my desk, my laptop have to be well-ordered. Once I’m in the flow of writing, my neuroses about my work environment disappear and I am a happy mess of reference books, tea mugs and notebooks. But I have begun to wonder whether the very advantages of typing a first draft are in fact disadvantages for me. I tend to edit as I write, which means that my first draft is often quite close to my final draft. This means that story progress is slow, which in turn feeds my doubt. Often, my most productive days have been on holiday, when the glare of the sun on my laptop screen make it impossible to write and I am forced to turn to pen and paper.
Then there’s the pursuit of clarity of thought and precision of expression. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and consider our words carefully. We come to the point more quickly. For a wordy writer, this can only be a good thing. My ego sometimes swells as my fingers fly across the keyboard, only for me to realise moments later why the delete button is my friend. When we write by hand, we make an investment, we cut back on elaboration for its own sake. And there’s nothing like sitting on a park bench in your lunch break with a notebook on your lap, as you let the world fade into the background and disappear into your story world. With computers, even in distraction free mode, there are days when the insistent blink of the cursor, the buzz of electronics, the knowledge of the messages waiting in my inbox and the churn of social media are difficult to ignore. It’s on those days that it might be an idea to just pick up a sheaf of paper and a pencil. Writing is a solitary activity, and walking away from the computer is to abandon the notion we are constantly available to everyone.
Finally, selfishly, as a reader and someone who is honing her craft, I would love for authors to continue working partly by hand, and for those materials to be available in centuries to come, like J.K. Rowling’s plotting spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the manuscripts for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. How charming and inspiring it is to see the scribbled notes and revisions of authors. Those notes are neither like a sanitised computer manuscript nor the printed texts. They are proof that writing is, first and foremost, a labour of love.