I used to write everything in notebooks. It’s been years since I’ve done so regularly, and maybe that’s why The Millions blogger Ethan Hauser’s praise of pen and paper in his essay Baffling Dictums left me a little bit nostalgic.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I stopped writing stories in notebooks and started typing them on keyboards. The changeover was gradual and happened at some point during my high-school career, when I’d type while I was home and write on paper during class. (Okay, I’ll come clean now—I was usually not taking notes.) I do remember that I began to prefer using computers because I’d type it all up anyway when I wanted to make edits, and that was a tedious process that I didn’t mind doing away with.
Aside from that, I didn’t think about it much; I’d just write whenever I wanted to, using whatever means was most convenient at the time. I liked it. Things were good. My writing, incidentally, was not one of those “things.”
Everything else was good, though, and that was what mattered.
And then, after I started college (On a side note, I did not start out as an English major, but I’ll leave that part for guessing) there was a year-and-a-half-long period of near-complete stagnation. My story ideas had not gone anywhere, mind you, and I’d routinely get lost in the process of plotting. That’s not something I can ever foresee changing.
But I was no longer writing. I’m not sure why, exactly; maybe I was just distracted by the exciting novelty of living on a college campus.
Fortunately, my break wasn’t permanent. I had all sorts of ideas, after all, and I needed to do something with them. So I started writing again.
Unfortunately, I found that it was more difficult than it had been before I’d stopped. I hadn’t realized that type of thing could happen. I’d never experienced terrible writer’s block before; now, I was experiencing it on a regular basis. As a result, I wasn’t writing nearly as much as I’d have liked to. This lasted for months before I started taking serious measures to try and fix it.
Whenever I got stuck, I would just move on and write something else. And I kept doing it. Every. Single. Time. It was helpful at first because it’d let me keep writing. It was fantastic until I noticed I was developing bad habits.
This was because I had taken my newfound strategies to the extreme.
My writing process used to be fairly linear. I’d write things in the order that they would happen one the page. I didn’t necessarily write every scene in linear order, but I’d start and finish scenes in one sitting.
I can’t do that anymore.
I’ll start writing, and as soon as I hit a roadblock, I’ll abandon ship (or maybe it would be more fitting to say “car”) and skip over to something else. Maybe to a different scene. Maybe to another subsection of the same scene. Don’t feel like writing out this description? Skip it! Move on to action! Having trouble with dialogue? Forget it! The next scene still needs to be introduced! Don’t know how to start it? Work on a transition between two paragraphs that you neglected a few pages back!
(In my post-pen-and-paper phase of writing, I have developed a fondness for placeholders. When I can’t think of the right word, phrase, or description, I hit the caps lock key SOMETHING and keep writing.
SOMETHING LSJKDFFJKLSDFKJLSD SOMETHING: TO BE RETURNED TO LATER.
It’s very useful when I remember to return later. I am not above having handed in school assignments with stray CAPSLOCKED PLACEHOLDERS that managed to evade my (probably rushed) proofreading. Shame.
I ask myself—would it be a better idea to pick the first word that comes to mind, keep writing, and find a more suitable one upon editing?)
The most obvious problem with writing like this is that it takes a long time to finish anything. I don’t mean finished enough to be considered complete, either; I mean finished enough to be legible. Too much of my writing exists as a web of stray lines, unconnected paragraphs, and incomplete thoughts. It’s become a process of filling in holes—and the holes never stop multiplying. There’s a point where it becomes difficult to understand what is going on, and that can be problematic when you want other people to look over your work.
Less visible—but equally problematic—is the fact that I’d stopped having as much fun. I still enjoy writing fiction, but I don’t find it as consistently exhilarating as I used to. When I wrote full scenes in one go instead of flitting back and forth between them.
I want that back. I write because I love to, so I want to have as much fun as possible while doing it.
I decided to try out writing on paper again, and realized—after staring at the lines of a blank page for several minutes in some unreasonable flavor of intimidation—that I had no idea what to do.
How can I write without the ability to seamlessly edit as I go? How can I decide on a sentence without testing several variations first? Do I really need to just write a sentence, stick with it for the time being, and move on?
Regardless of whether I’m writing with a pen or with word-processing software, that is exactly what I need to do.
Maybe that process allowed me to get past the writer’s block that followed my hiatus and start regularly again. I don’t think I can deny that, and for that reason, I feel as though I owe it some appreciation. To an extent, it deserves my gratitude. But I also wonder if it’s overstayed its welcome.
In the time since I’ve started writing fiction again, I’ve become too preoccupied with grammatical mechanics and structure. For a while, I thought the problem was that I treat writing like I do drawing. I write with aesthetics in mind, and I consistently nitpick details.
As I examine my drawing process more closely, though, it occurs to me that I’ve been wrong. Underneath every sketch that I’ve ever been satisfied with, there’s an awful mess of scribbles.
Isn’t writing the same way?
That’s what I had forgotten.
What’s the point of being fussy about writing that I’m going to edit anyway? What’s wrong with producing something that’s aesthetically atrocious? That’s what editing is for.
I love to edit writing—but I’ve got to limit the time I spend editing while writing.
On my windowsill, there’s a black three-ring binder that’s completely filled with (mostly) clean loose-leaf sheets. Perhaps I’ll give it another shot.