Yesterday I read a post about writers’ notebooks on Joy Castro’s writing blog. Joy is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a joint appointment in English and Ethnic Studies. Also, to quote her bio: “Joy Castro’s first book, The Truth Book: A Memoir (New York: Arcade, 2005), was named a Book Sense Notable Book by the American Booksellers Association and was adapted and excerpted in The New York Times Magazine. Her short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in several anthologies and in journals such as North American Review, Cream City Review, Chelsea, Quarterly West, and Puerto del Sol.”
I was very lucky to have Joy as my faculty mentor for two semesters during the two-year low-residency MFA program I recently completed at Pine Manor College. I take her advice very seriously, because she is both a gifted writer and an excellent teacher. One of the things she often talks about is her preference for writing initial drafts by hand (vs. keyboard).
I admit I am a keyboard junky; I do most of my writing and drafting with a desktop or laptop screen in front of me. I don’t even have to glance at the keyboard; Starting with a typing class in high school, I’ve been typing so long for school, professional jobs and my own work that I actually confuse myself if I look down. My husband complains that the letters of the most popular keys are so faded that he can’t type at my computer, but I actually have to look away from the keyboard and use my hands to figure out which letter is missing on a key.
For me, the words fly from my mind onto the computer screen almost as fast as I think or speak. But Joy has a good point when she talks in her post about the advantage of slowing things down. I do think it is a different experience to write with a pen or pencil in hand, and it’s very possible that something is missing from my work when I draft it too quickly on the computer. Joy describes what’s missing as: “the bodied rhythm, the intimacy, the slowness, which provides the opportunity to compose more deliberately from the very beginning.”
One morning, when I still a student in the MFA program, I sat on a plastic chair on the porch of a small hotel in New Hampshire and wrote the first draft of an essay by hand. The early morning air was cold and a heavy fog hovered over Mt. Sunapee across the valley. I huddled in a jacket on that chair with a bitter cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup sitting on a small table next to me. The coffee was soon as cold as I was. My fingers felt stiff and frozen while I moved a pen across the pages of a small notebook. But I have to say that the words poured out of me that morning in a way they often don’t when I’m sitting at a computer. I was inspired by my surroundings, which I could experience through all of my senses, and those surrounding provoked new thoughts in my mind. I felt connected to what I was writing because I was aware of my hand, instead of letting it fly across a keyboard without even noticing it was there. Maybe body awareness somehow contributes to mind awareness while writing. Certainly not having the ease and speed of a “backspace” key forced me to slow down and think a little more about each word I was adding to the page, and when I got cold or tired, I had to stop, and just think.
I’m going to buy a new notebook today. I want to free myself up from the routine of the computer screen and see if I can “play” a little more with my writing. Everything in front of me in my home office right now is rectangular, with stiff, defined lines — the mac computer screen (even with its slightly rounded corners), the desk, the keyboard, even the window that looks out onto the street in front of our house. My mind is feeling as stiff as those lines.
Looking out the window, I’m thinking, maybe I have to get out there to get in here.