If you’ve been following, you’ll know I very recently begun my emergence from a nasty, festering pile of Writer’s Block. Over those dark days, I spent a lot of time thinking about process, talking to my crit group and other authors about it, and pondering both the blockage and what I felt was my own plot-less-ness. (Perhaps ‘plot-less-ness’ is too strong a made-up word. It was as if I were sitting in that festering pile in the middle of a complex, tangled forest, only catching tiny glimpses of the blue above the trees, unable to see which plotline or character quality would lead me up, out, and skyward. Have you ever experienced Writer’s Block? Did it feel similar for you?)
I have a number of writer-friends who write longhand before they take their work to the computer screen, and I’ve always wondered how exactly they do it. I also wondered why they would write longhand, when word processing programs make for such easy writing, quick changes, and moving things around. As a very non-linear writer, I’ve always loved the perceived freedom a word processing program allows. But I also had to wonder why others were producing so much more than I, and faster, and why they didn’t seem to get so stuck. Something in my process was clearly not working for me, and I was desperate to know what.
Last week, I had coffee with Rebecca Maizel, author of Infinite Days and out of our discussion about process, came an absolute epiphany (Thanks, Rebecca!). She showed me how she writes in a large lined notebook. And when she needs to make notes about craft, process, narrative arc, and so forth, she turns the book upside down and writes on the adjacent page. This helps her keep the two connected, yet separate enough not to break her flow.
Entranced by this idea, I stopped on the way back to my office, bought an attractive, eco-friendly notebook and—discovering (or creating!) a spare hour at the end of the day — took it out into the garden and began to write. Almost immediately, it was as if something clicked. I felt myself literally break free of the muck, and I was up, up, and away.
One of my main problems, I quickly realized, is that I do exactly what I tell my students and clients not to do: I edit as I go. Unlike many authors, I love revision. I love the subtleties in individual sentences, the cadence of the language, the fascinating interplay between characters and the nuances of their body language and behavior. I like to play and turn sentences upside down and bring out the music in words. I can happily get lost in that for long hours—until I realize I’m still as deep in the forest I was. As an editor, surprise-surprise, I have the perfect day job. But as an author, it turns out, I'd become my own worst enemy.
The beauty of the notebook is that it does not allow me to get bogged down in editing. I can still jump about from section to section of my book as I am wont to do. But because my handwriting is barely legible, I cannot edit on the page, or I risk not being able to read what I’ve written at all. This has the wonderful effect of forcing me forward with the narrative, hurrah!
In turns out that I am not, in fact, plot-less; I just get weighed down by the minutiae of individual sentences. And in the last week, I’ve carried an onscreen idea and some random paragraphs to an almost complete first draft of a new chapter book. Thanks to some great advice and a notebook, I feel light, I feel free, and I’m flying.
What about you? Do you write longhand? Do you prefer the screen? I’m eager to hear about your process.