Writing by Hand

28 September 2018 on Blog, Storystorm  

There’s something so formal about Word document screens, with their clean, white pages and perfectly straight blinking cursors. They make me feel what I’m about to write must also be clean, and straight, and perfect. But with creative writing first drafts, it’s not going to happen.

I was a journalist before I was an MFA student, and at the newspaper, I had no problem with that blinking cursor. I researched and interviewed before I wrote, and generally, I knew how the story would go before I wrote it. Whenever I got stuck, I turned to my notes, quotes and facts. I was the scribe, not the source.

So it freaked me out, realizing my process for creative writing was different. Often, I don’t know what I’m going to write before I write, because with creative writing, I am the source, the idea, the characters, the setting. I am the one who needs to have something to say, and yet, when I stare at that stupid blinking cursor, I sometimes realize I don’t yet know what it is I have to say. When this happens, I close my laptop, take out my notebook and write by hand.

Obviously, this is not a revolutionary idea, particularly at the University of New Hampshire! Donald Murray, a legendary UNH journalism professor who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing called his notebook a daybook. In it, he jotted down ideas, sketches and the first drafts of essays, poems and other pieces of writing. Many of his old daybooks are now part of the Milne Special Collections and Archives at the Dimond Library. Encouraging students to keep daybooks was part of his teaching.

For me, the point is to explore the writing in a different medium, so if pen and paper isn’t your thing, there are other ways to do this. I know people whose process involves writing scenes on index cards, creating floor-to-ceiling maps, using typewriters to avoid the internet or talking out ideas before writing. They need to step out of that virtual world and into the physical one, to look at the work in a different way that sparks more creative or abstract ideas.

When I write with pen and paper, there’s a sense of playfulness and discovery that can’t be emulated on the computer screen. I can sketch, I can list, I can write the most ridiculous scene there ever was. I can be messy, silly and melodramatic. My internal editor goes on vacation in my notebook, where the goal isn’t to create something perfect, but to create something, something that exists now that didn’t exist before, something I never would have via that intimidating, straight-laced cursor, because when I write with pen, I can’t press delete. With pen, I can only go forward.

Kelly Sennott is Barnstorm's nonfiction editor.



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