Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The medium and the message

There's a question that nearly always comes up in interviews and Q&As: What do you write with: a pencil or pen or straight onto the keyboard? When I first heard this question it struck me as an irrelevant one: what did it matter, wasn't the work, the end result, the thing that mattered, not the mechanics by which it was set down? But then of course in order to answer the question I had to think about why my personal preference was to write my first drafts by hand. The reason, I realised, was that I felt there to be some kind of connection between the brain and hand: it was like drawing, drawing the pictures in my head, only with the shapes of the letters and the words; it was a way to get the proper shape and the feel of things - a more bodily, visceral connection to the story than I could ever get with the tips of my fingers on a keyboard. And the reason I liked to use a fountain pen was that the liquid flow of the ink somehow helped to make the words and the pictures flow. I hadn't always used a fountain pen, though: before someone bought me one for Christmas one year, I used any old biro to hand, and for a long time I was far less fussy about the kind of paper I wrote on than I ended up being. And others wrote straight onto the computer. So surely it was a matter of habit and personal preference, and therefore of no real wider interest in the question of how to write?

One thing that swapping to a fountain pen did for me was to make my handwriting neater. Writing by hand for years with your mind on the story and not on your handwriting makes your handwriting terrible, or it did mine. The nib forced me to be more controlled than the slippy ballpoint or rollerball could, and created subtler, more differentiated letter shapes. But there came a time - about eighteen months ago - when even my fountain pen couldn't make my writing neat enough for me to easily read back what I had written. Eighteen months ago I sat down to write a novel. On the second day I looked at what I had written on the first, and I could make neither head nor tail of it without doing a scrutinising, translating job. Hardly conducive to an overall view and fluid leaps of the imagination. How was I going to get any sort of flow? Apart from which, if I did ever manage to get to the end, how long would it take me to transfer the thing to the computer, if I couldn't even read what I'd written?

In fact, although once upon a time I'd write everything this way, I was by now writing everything apart from fiction straight onto the computer. It started, as far as I remember, with blogging, and I soon moved on to writing everything beside fiction - reviews, articles, reports - that way. Was I just being superstitious about fiction, clinging superstitiously to old habits? After all, I was very used by now to forming ideas via my fingertips directly on the screen. And it wasn't as if I didn't, after all, ever write fiction on the computer: unless I needed to do radical rewrites, once I'd transferred the first draft to the computer, all further work on a piece was indeed done on the computer. It's often pointed out - though perhaps less than it was at one time - that once a piece of writing is on the screen it looks authoritative, finished, which leads to a temptation not to rewrite and edit. But didn't I edit endlessly on the computer? And I thought of the way that my old method doubled the time it took to make a first draft - writing it once, then typing it all over again. So, as I recorded on this blog at the time, I abandoned my pen, and because the novel was, I knew, going to be short and linear, I wrote it - my first time ever with fiction - straight onto the computer. It felt like utter liberation. I felt I had dispensed with an old, useless time-consuming habit.

Well, this winter I came to work on the novel again, and I saw: it was rushed. It was fluid enough, too fluid: it was short of those beats, those pauses and longeurs that take you emotionally into the characters' psyches and the drama of the situation. There was too much telling - fine, well-expressed telling - but, simply, not enough feeling. I could see: I had brought to it the wrong mentality altogether: the summing-up, intellectual mentality, the quick-fire making of abstract connections, the explicitness of article-writing, that mentality with which my fingers, clattering across the keyboard, are so used now to being in touch. I had lost the slow emotional burn, the subtle implication, and the visceral feel of fiction.

I have had to rewrite it, and, guess what, I had to do whole chunks of it by hand. Only by writing by hand could I properly sink into the world I needed to create, and once I did that, in fact, the connections and meanings grew. Perhaps it's simply a matter of time: it takes longer to write legibly by hand that it does to type, and there's more time for the pictures and feelings to form. But I think I actually paused more, spent more time dreaming, dreaming about the story between putting the words down. And that's the crux, perhaps. Article-writing is purely thinking, and fiction-writing is chiefly dreaming. Article-writing requires an incisive, controlling mentality; fiction-writing requires a kind of loss of self, a giving oneself up, a receptivity. I know others don't suffer this associative dichotomy - and surely the children now starting with computers in their cradles won't - but for me, for the present at any rate, while my article-writing mind can fly with my fingers over the keyboard, my fiction-making dreams must travel down my arm to the pen in my hand. (And I'm trying to write more neatly!)