Although we had computers when I was in college, I was in the habit of writing my many papers longhand. I would spend hours in the library with research material piled up around me, taking meticulous numbered notes, which I would then compile into a detailed outline. Once I had polished my outline to the point that I felt like I needed only to add punctuation and transitions to turn it into an essay, I would scrawl out my first draft by hand. Next I would type my first printed draft and edit it and subsequent printed drafts by hand, riddling them with corrections and notes and editorial notations until I felt like I had a piece worth reading.
For years after college, I wrote very little prose other than the occasional blog post or personal email. When I did begin writing more formal or structured prose for public consumption in the last few years, I shifted to electronic mode, adapting easily enough to staring at the blank screen until my fingers set to work filling it up. I would do many edits as I typed and often wouldn’t print even the things that merited printing until I had something resembling a final draft.
Lately I’ve suffered a bit of a block. I have many stories rumbling around in my head, but when I’ve stared at that blank screen, I simply haven’t been able to spit out any words. It’s funny how stingy you can be with words even when it’s so easy to put them on the screen and take them right back when they turn out to be duds. It’s not as if we’re 10th-century monks copying out illuminated texts in dim rooms, after all.
Yesterday I hurt my pinky. I have no idea what I did, but the knuckle is swollen, and using my left pinky to strike the keyboard was excruciating. So my options for working on personal writing projects and for putting together this post were basically as follows:
- write a lipogram avoiding letters such as “s” and “a” and any upper-case letters on the right-hand half of the keyboard
- write a longhand draft and hope for less painful typing later
So I whipped out a notebook and picked up the story I had begun drafting onscreen the night before. And something about the physical act of putting my pen to a piece of paper helped the words flow. I pretty effortlessly scribbled down three pages of prose and then broke for a few minutes to draft this post by hand.
In retrospect, I should perhaps have known that putting pen to paper would be good for me — I’ve always preferred hand-written to-do lists to task management software. I wonder if there’s not also something freeing about scribbling out a draft. Maybe it’s akin to doodling in that you’re doing creative work but feel less like you’re committing yourself to the sometimes daunting task of making a final product.
Whatever the case, if you find yourself blocked, consider trying a hand-written draft if only for a change of mental scenery. It’s been a welcome and refreshing change for me this week, if one resulting in a mildly sore hand and the realization that I earned every poor hand-writing grade I ever received as a child.