Back to basics
Away on holiday and the routine is dropped. I am writing if the mood takes me and when a quiet corner in time and location avails itself, rather than the ‘something every day’ (however small) discipline I adhere to at home. Under these circumstances though, I am happy to have written at all rather than berate myself for not being more methodical. Change is good. And along those same lines, I have gone ‘low-tech’.
There is a wifi connection here; it comes and goes and several people are trying to access it at any one time. Plus, I did not want to carry a lap-top in my hand luggage, so have just a pad with me, which contains a most recent draft for reference. I could edit it, but the device doesn’t lend itself to writing, as such. So it’s a sole use of paper and notebook for now. The downsides are that I will have to type it all up when I am back home, and my handwriting, never textbook perfect, has worsened over years of near-exclusive keyboard use.
Still, as long as I don’t lose the notebook in transit, below are some benefits of the basic-tools approach.
- I am not distracted by research; I just leave a note where relevant details need to be inserted. This is a positive since I am often tempted into factual exploration, with access to university library material not to mention the Internet itself. The temptation can also be resisted to add a juicy morsel of historical fact because ‘it’s there’ and not because it’s relevant – less is generally more on historical and geographical detail. As I am drafting something set in 18th-century Central Europe, I have a list of questions to get to later about costume, custom, décor, travelling times, periodicals…
- There is no temptation to edit as I go – bar the occasional crossing out. This is a first draft, so re-writing can wait and editing is far off. I’ll probably make a few changes and flesh out a bit as I type up, but for now, pen and paper aids occasional bouts of free writing.
- Nor do I break off to check words or hunt after synonyms. Again, that can come later. If I don’t think I’ve found the right word yet or there’s too much repetition of the same words, I’ll leave a placeholder note for later consideration.
- It’s entirely portable. Sure, technology has moved on – remember the days of looking for an ‘Internet Café?’ – I could make notes on my pad or phone, but for true technical reliability, pen and paper has it. Any time of day and any location – such as sitting here now by the pool, the sea in the distance, cicadas chirping as the sun makes its first misty appearance of the day (see the pictures below); or on the terrace of a café, on the beach…
- Then there is the lack of digital distractions that come with being on line – the quick checks of one’s email, the news headlines, social media, and so on.
The focus locus
In addition to letting their words flow, some people simply enjoy the aesthetic of the pen and paper process, perhaps feeling that it’s more authentic, ‘real’ writing. Amongst contemporary writers, Neil Gaiman has said that reaching for a notebook is his first instinct for writing novels, with first drafts done in longhand and the tip that “Working in fountain pen is good because it slows me down just enough to keep my handwriting legible.” (I’ll have to remember that one). It may have been down to economic necessity in the early days, but JK Rowling has also expressed a preference to start up her work in longhand. Prolific author Joyce Carol Oates is on record as noting that “Writing is a consequence of thinking, planning, dreaming…” rather than “the way in which the writing is recorded.” and Indian-American writer Jumpha Lahiri, though she does not draft exclusively in pen, has said “I feel freer when I write by hand.” Lahiri is another writer that notes the importance of having a notebook handy for the benefit of its immediate accessibility.
As a recreational writer and near-newbie, I should pay attention to the voices of these successful professional writers. Besides, whilst much is written on the creative preferences of using paper and pen, there is also scientific support for its benefits. For instance, it has been demonstrated that writing by hand, rather than typing, stimulates the area of the human brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). Apparently this bundle of nerves is the part that filters out unnecessary information to allow the important stuff gets through – in other words, it helps us to focus. That presumably is related to the creative flow that can come with longhand writing.
I am not, personally, hung up on the ‘romance’ of pen and paper. However, I may start to use longhand more often, for instance if I find myself distracted by the mechanics of writing rather than just ‘getting on with it’ in the early stages. And, if nothing else, it does mean I can indulge my stationery mania and buy some lovely notebooks.
 Neil Gaiman, 2006 How I Write, Timeout, https://www.timeout.com/london/books/neil-gaiman-how-i-write
 Stop Sending me Paper, Begs Rowling, 2006, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/may/12/harrypotter.jkjoannekathleenrowling
 Jhumpa Lahiri on India, Being a Mother, and Being Inspired by the Ocean 2013 in Harper’s Bazaar https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/staying-in/news/a20300/booker-prize-nominated-jhumpa-lahiri-on-india-being-a-mother-and-being-inspired-by-the-ocean/
 Is it true that a different part of the brain is engaged when writing by hand versus typing?, 2017-2018 in Quora, https://www.quora.com/Is-it-true-that-a-different-part-of-the-brain-is-engaged-when-writing-by-hand-versus-typing