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Does Anyone Use a Notebook Anymore?

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

An informal poll: how many of you write longhand? I’m not talking about your jotting, your journaling, or your observation-making here, but about your actual drafting of a story. Conversely, how many, like me, write exclusively on a computer?

The reason I ask is because a friend of mine advised me to try writing longhand when I’m stuck on a scene; she said that while it may seem totally anachronistic—like driving a station wagon or listening to a walkman or making your own coffee—the change in process might free up my mind and allow me to solve the problem my story has created. When I bristled at the idea, she advised, “What was good enough for Shakespeare should be good enough for you.” True, I thought, but then, chamber pots were good enough for Shakespeare, too. I’m sure that, given the choice, he’d have used a toilet. You make do with what’s available to you, don’t you?

There are so many benefits to writing on a computer; the primary having to do with revisions. I change my work constantly whenever I re-read it; if I were to do this on anything other than a Word document, the scratch-outs would render the work totally illegible. And, like most of us who had to take keyboarding in grammar school, I type a lot faster than I write. And a lot more neatly. And spelled a lot more accurately. And with the added bonus of the thesaurus feature and the ease of online research. And more easily saved, and in more places (we’ve all heard the story of Hemingway’s lost suitcase full of manuscripts. Don’t you wish he could have just emailed them to himself?)

But then I got worried. I mean, what if I am too dependent on the computer? What if the medium of the laptop throws some sort of a wedge between the communion of brain and hand and pen and paper? What if I couldn’t go back and revise constantly—what option would that leave me except to continue writing forward, however sloppily? Is it better to have a rough, handwritten manuscript that’s finished from beginning to end, or a meticulously crafted fifteen pages in Courier New? Sometimes I think the former is much better, and that means that perhaps if you’re a compulsive reviser like I am, longhand is the best way to achieve that.

And it’s also true that you have less freedom when you write exclusively by computer. What ever happened to the idea of the roving poet, scribbling away in his notebook on the train, next to the fountain, under the stone bridge, beside the sea? Wouldn’t it by nice to have nothing but a paper and pen when you’re writing the afternoon away under a willow tree?

But then, who among us has ever actually written anything under a willow tree? It just all seems so…Elizabethan.

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17 Responses to Does Anyone Use a Notebook Anymore?

  1. Laura L. Fogle says:

    This block of posts surprises me. I am the only one in my circle who chooses (and is all but required) to write everything longhand first.

    Writing to me is art. But then again I’m also an artist who paints with a brush to canvas and not just a pen to paper. I have to have the artistic movement of my hands in writing longhand in order to be creative. I find I have a different mindset when using pen and paper than when working at a computer. Perhaps it is because I have worked in an office setting for so many years, but I can be creative and artistic when I write longhand and only technical and logical when I stare at a computer screen. This is a good combination for me, actually. I have the artistic freedom when I write then can revert to my editing brain as I type my manuscript and make any necessary changes that I didn’t exactly stop to correct while the ideas were flowing. I feel it allows me to become a part of the story and its surroundings as I create. I can better visualize what I write if I can keep the flow going and not be distracted with format and layout and "Where did they hide that ‘x’ key anyway?"

    I use composition books for my manuscripts (they are very durable since I carry them with me everywhere until I am done with the final draft, typed and edited). Using only the front of each page allows plenty of room for notes or revisions as necessary. And I can color coordinate each manuscript to match (since it can take eight to ten to hold a novel).

    Maybe I’m just old school, but longhand works for me.

  2. Dana says:

    Spiritually or emotionally, your intuition may be asking you for permission to be less like a formal story writer and more like an abstract artist. It happens.

    Have you ever watched a movie about a visual artist? The movie about Jackson Pollack or that Beatles movie called Across the Universe or even Il Postino?

    Perhaps your intuition is asking you to write in a notebook or let go of some of the formal demands of "the short story". Go for it. Get loose, get free. Play the role of the poet writing in a notebook by the fountain. It doesn’t have to be forever, but why not explore it?

    The result may not be a finished story or a finished poem or anything anybody else finds "readable", but it may become an important project for you personally.

    You may end up with a notebook loaded with raw material that can be used later, or not. It may your best stuff. It may be more important than what you turn in to be graded. Or not. How will you know unless you try?

    If it helps, cut out pictures or pieces of writing and tape them into a notebook and write about them, might help you get started.

    (web site is not mine, just a pic of a notebook)

  3. Eliza Fogel says:

    I write longhand. I just bought a beautiful peacock notebook in New Orleans that I can’t wait to use. The only time I ever write a first draft on the computer is when I’m pressed for time. With paper and pen, my writing is freer and dreamier and I give myself more permission to make mistakes. My journal entries are poetic. My screen entries are formal.

  4. Meg says:

    I do both. I, like a lot of the other commentors, prefer to begin in longhand, especially when I’m not near a computer. I like to write a few pages at a time in my notebook at school, in a bookstore or coffee shop, or at work, then type it up when I get home and make any necessary changes. I usually can’t get started with a story by typing and it’s hard to keep moving forward when writing on computer, because I’m tempted to go back and revise what I’ve already written. No matter how much technology we have, pen and paper will always be relevant.

  5. Karen says:

    It’s not an either/or thing for me. I do both, and I go back and forth multiple times. I typically start out longhand to get a grip on the idea. Then I type it up and work with it on the computer. Then I print it out and mark it up longhand. Then back to the computer again, and so on. When I get stuck, longhand is definitely the way to go. I sit down on my comfy couch with my legs curled up and notebook on my lap and try to let words just flow without any censoring. Then it’s back to the computer to give those words some shape. So, I definitely think you should give longhand a try. You may be very surprised at the outcome.

  6. Jessie Morrison says:

    These comments are so interesting! I am really surprised at the number of how many of you are longhanders! I am really going to have to try it. I like the idea of writing fiction in pencil, and notes/ideas in pen. It seems that many of us have problems with self-editing as we go…and Kevin, your comment about writing a novel via PC being a nightmare can perhaps explain why I’ve written lots of successful short stories but abandoned every novel attempt I’ve ever made!

  7. Ashley says:

    I use both. When I am stuck I usually switch to longhand, it frees up the brain a bit I think. I also like to do first revisions in long hand because corrections on a computer are not as fun.

  8. The collective thought is in the air. This past Sunday at my Bucks County Writer’s Group the discussion of writing longhand vs. on the computer came up. I write much faster on a computer without the hand cramps, but reading over all the comments I might give it a try. Writing at home proves to be more difficult with the distractions of TV and Internet. When I am at a bookstore I find I’m more motivated to get my work done, but with the free Wi-Fi, Facebook and other distractions still tug at my pant leg. I agree with Brenda, deleting on the computer removes any trace of an idea or direction worth exploring later on. This week I am going to make writing a short story in long hand a goal. Thanks for the post!

  9. Brenda says:

    I like to write longhand and do my revising as I type it into the computer. There’s something more personal in the physical act of writing that connects me to the story. Also, I can write a line on the computer which, on first look in black and white, is horrible so I delete it. In my notebook, I write the line and if I don’t like it I just put a line through it which allows me later to look back and say "Hey that wasn’t too bad."

  10. Kevin Kato says:

    Writing a short story I could go either way but drafting a novel on a pc would be a nightmare for me. When the pages start piling up I find it so much easier to flip back and forth between real pages. Plus I am always dropping notes in the margins, while I also designate a few pages in the back of my notebook to flesh out or simply get down on paper ideas before me brain loses them. Particularly for a guy who types largely with two fingers (I am totally not kidding, it is pathetic!), writing things out is a smoother and more efficient process at the outset, even though I’ll have to type everything up later regardless.

  11. Matt Stevens says:

    I’ve tried writing longhand and while I can occasionally put together a scene or a paragraph or two I spend the majority of my time writing in front of my computer. My largest problem and reason for the computer over longhand is that I can type faster than I can write (and much more legibly). I have found that I have problems longhand because my brain moves faster than I can write things down on the paper and thanks to NaNoWriMo, I’ve overcome my insane urge to immediately edit everything as soon as it’s typed out.

    Hence, my vote, computer.

  12. Katie says:

    I write long hand. I’ve got a Writer’s Notebook that I keep in my backpack to serve as a catch-all for quotes, funny stories, random thoughts, and first drafts. There aren’t any rules for my WN other than, if possible, fiction must be written in pencil and everything else must be in (any color) pen. That way, when I’m flipping through it looking for a scene, I don’t get distracted by the random act of kindness I witnessed three days ago. I do a lot of editing and revising on the computer but most things start on paper first. It’s also because technology hates me. I’ve lost a lot of "really good" drafts due to misplaced thumb drives, computer/hard drive miscommunications, and the dreaded blue screen. If I at least have a first idea on paper, I have a place to start should I need to start over.

    Katie

  13. I prefer to write longhand. There’s something about that computer screen that zombiefies me. Writing longhand is raw and pure.

  14. Robin says:

    I write my first drafts longhand. I discovered things flow so much better and freely. My brain goes blank when try to write on the computer. I type it up later, clean it up a bit. Less distractions as well and I can write any where.

  15. Wendy Scott says:

    I was firmly convinced that I would only ever be able to write on a computer for many of the same reasons you list in your post. However, I recently started writing at local coffee shops before I go to work to reduce distractions (read: procrastination opportunities). And so I found myself time-warping back to pen and paper. I have to say that there is something about pen to paper that compels you to create something and keep moving forward precisely because it is so much more difficult to edit on paper. I would then take my writing home at the end of the day and type it up and man, did that get tiresome.

    So, I bought a netbook which I use exclusively for my writing. No games, no email, no Facebook, etc. It’s working well, but it is different than pen and paper. Fingers to keyboard don’t seem to produce the same compulsion to create in me and I tend to edit a little more obsessively as I go. And while I can forgive a typo on paper and move on, I can’t abide the red squiggly line on the screen. Each medium has its pros and cons, but for now, I’m sticking with my keyboard for sit-down writing sessions but I carry paper and pen for notes on the go.

  16. I write both ways. If I’m just starting a piece, I find it helpful to write longhand. I’m less likely to self edit. I can just let my stream of conscious flow. Then, once I’ve gotten the bones of the piece down, I’ll switch to the computer and rearrange, edit, etc.

  17. I almost always write longhand on white legal pads. I find that my brain works better that way.
    I think the computer inhibits my writing, although my main job as a freelancer is editing and copy editing, which I do on the computer.
    I think, perhaps, this is because of my age–52–and the fact that when I started in the business at 17 as a writer for Gibson Greeting Cards, all we had were manual or electric typewriters. I was a horrid typist – my typing teacher gave up on me in high school. Because I made so many mistakes, I would write my card ideas on legal pads first, then type them before submission.
    Of course, over the years my typing has improved with the invention of the computer keyboard, but I have this blockage in my brain that stymies my creative flow when my fingers are required to find keys.

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