On Writing Longhand and On-screen

I’ve never really known what it means to write my creative work longhand. As a poet, I write onscreen because most of my recent work is short, but I’ve always written directly onscreen because the same year I got my first computer was the same year I started writing. As an essayist the routine has been the same. Computers and word-processing programs have made writers’ lives easier, neater, if you will, in this way, but there is always the danger of your computer crashing, getting a virus, and destroying your work, but then again handy little thumb drives have staved off that issue, if you remember to save your latest version on one each time you write.

For me, it’s easier to write onscreen and neater: my handwriting is a horror, and I have personal issues with writing on the page first. I find I’m troubled by the changes that take place between page and screen, because I have always stood by the belief that your first draft (maybe second) succinctly expresses the passion of your emotional state and thoughts at the time of experience. But I only feel this way about poetry—poetry, for me, is in and of the moment, the intensity of experience drawn out on the page. Fiction and nonfiction call for a different way of thinking and writing: a coordinated, steady routine where you explore from multiple angles, write, and rewrite until you find the words that fit closest to your thoughts, your vision, that are near perfect, because perfection is impossible, so keep the thought that it’s not out of your mind.

For me, writing onscreen has become a habit, something I should break out of in the hopes that maybe it will allow me to write in a different voice. I often feel writing onscreen displaces us from the experiences of writing that the great authors who only knew the page or the page in a typewriter had, the sound and feeling of pen and ink on paper, the ink-stained fingers, the sound of the keys beneath your fingertips and the bell ringing when you reach the end of the line; tapping on a keyboard doesn’t get anywhere near that feeling, that image, for me. I feel that there is a lost connection between the writer and their text today that did not exist one hundred, even fifty, years ago. The connection I’m thinking of is one of direct process, something that I have thought about for quite some time, and that Dani Shapiro talks about in her book, Still Writing:

typewriter, close up of keys

“[T]he screen can make our work look neat and tidy—finished—before it is. We can swoop in, search and replace, cut and paste, highlight, delete, and all the while the screen absorbs the changes and still looks the same. If you’ve never tried it, see what happens if you write a draft of something longhand. . . . It will look messy, because it is messy. . . . You’ll be able to see a road map of your progress as you build the architecture of your story. . . . This is work being made in real time. Work that reveals its scars.”

Writing onscreen does not reveal to us or other readers the passion, the mistakes, the wrong turns, the intense doubt and love for the written word that writers experience when at work, and which is clearly seen in the marginal notes, the cross-outs, and rewriting that takes place when the pen is scurrying along the page. I do not mean to say that passion in missing from the text, but rather that the passion of being in the process is not exposed onscreen the way it is on the handwritten page. I love Shapiro’s last line, “Work that reveals its scars.” This—writers showing themselves how they survived and worked through the process of writing the poem, the story, or the novel—is what is lost when writing onscreen.

Maybe this is why I can’t look at my old work anymore, because the clean print on the page does not evoke the intense emotion of the writing process at the time, because the page has absorbed all the words I rewrote and moved around, without a trace. So, in a way, a part of me is gone, gone with the words that were once there in whatever order on the page before I deleted them and hit SAVE.

poetry-writing

I think writers should go back to writing on the page, and after filling a notebook, take it to the computer, and type what’s in it. But first, you should give full expression to the need to rewrite not only in the moment of first writing, but after you’ve filled the notebook as well. Reread what you’ve written all the way through and revise as you go along, especially if you haven’t done much rewriting on the first go-around. Then, sit at the computer and start typing it up, and see how much gets altered from page to screen. I think in doing this you’ll become a better writer and even more engaged in the writing process, not just as process, but also as experience, than you were before, and this, in the end, is what matters most—the experience and what you glean from it. For it is experience, and observation of one’s own and others’ experiences that make writers the powerful storytellers of the human condition that they are.

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