Friday, November 23, 2018

Slow Writing: The Pros and Cons of Writing by Hand

A reader sent me this link, a brief article by award-winning writer Annie Proulx on her five rules for good writing.  Even if you don't agree, the website (Writer's Write) is worth a visit.  But I like Proulx's work and I read her counsel, hoping for some inspiration for my current project.  It's always helpful to look into a respected writer's progress.

Of her five rules, two were about writing by hand.

That surprised me--yet it didn't.  There's a slow movement in writing, as in art and the food world and elsewhere, our attempt to counteract the panicked pace we live right now.  A search for sanity and balance. 

Notebook and pen foster a different kind of writing, for me at least.  Since I "grew up" as a writer on Natalie Goldberg's freewrites (Writing Down the Bones) and Pam Painter's exercises (What If?), I'm not a stranger to slow writing.  There's a logic to it.  The movement of the hand calms the vagus nerve, according to certain brain research I've read.  Our fright/flight/fight response settles down which maybe allows freer access to the more random part of our creativity.  Although slow writing might not foster linear activities, such as plotting and outlining, it works quite well with storyboarding, my favorite non-linear organization technique.

I teach a whole retreat on storyboarding, but a few years ago I also offered an evening freewriting session after our storyboarding afternoon.  At my annual week-long writing retreats (January 14-18 in Tucson, March 24-29 in Santa Fe, July 22-26 on Madeline Island), we gather on Tuesday evening and let creativity surge up.  I present six prompts; we write for 10 minutes on each.  It's slow but it fosters amazing ideas.  Some prompts lead to another:  "Imagine one of your characters.  Write about this character's hands" merging into "Now see something in those hands.  Describe it." 

One year I added a third step:  "Imagine the character trying to hide the object." That generated very interesting scenes! 

On my laptop, I freewrite quickly, but I also notice more attention to the way the words look, sound, fall on the page.  My editing brain engages, maybe just from the neurology of typing versus handwriting.  Writing by hand disengages that editor inside, to some extent.  It feels frustrating, like watching a movie from the eighties (have you rented or downloaded one lately? know what I mean?), but slowness has its benefits.  After my fast-moving linear self finally relaxes, I go in unexpected directions.

For your weekly writing exercise, set a timer and try the freewrite above for 10-20 minutes.  Do it first by hand, then on your computer.  I'm guessing the freewrites will emerge differently.  Which do you like better?  And once you're done, check out Annie Proulx's article to read more of why a pro recommends going slow.

(If you have trouble with the link above, go to and search for Annie Proulx.)  

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