Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rebel without a clue: is it truly necessary to freewrite longhand?

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that after all my years as a writer and writing teacher, I have never read Julia Cameron's famous The Artist's Way. Recently one of my former students blogged about Cameron's advice to write so-called “morning pages” every day. They helped Mia find her way out of a painful creative desert, which provoked me to do a little research and find out what these morning pages are all about.

Because what writer amongst us can't use inspiration? I know I can, especially now. I seem to be mired in a Sargasso of brain-lessness at the moment. I miss my morning walks, which seemed to open me up creatively each day. As I enter the fourth week of enforced immobility after Achilles tendon surgery last month, my mind as well as my leg seems to have stopped moving. I can barely concentrate long enough to read a book, much less write one myself.

And although I still haven't read Artist’s Way, I have read the author’s website about morning pages, and also several articles by other writers extolling what this practice has done for them. It strikes me that other than Cameron's prescription that these pages should be done first thing in the morning, this is the same technique that Natalie Goldberg recommended in her classic Writing Down the Bones.

They both also stipulate that this freewriting be done longhand: with pen on paper, saying that this allows you in some undefined way to connect more authentically with your inner self. And this is where I'm going to rebel.

Why? It’s not because I’m a techno-snob. I love notebooks and pens. I've made almost a fetish of collecting them: Moleskines; Rhodias; Cartesios; handbound leather folios so gorgeous that I have never tainted the creamy acid-free pages by daring to actually write on them; even cheap Mead composition books that I sewed cute fabric covers for. I use a green clothbound notebook as my commonplace book where I lovingly inscribe quotes that appeal to me; I make a story bible out of a Moleskine each time I begin a big new writing project. I often organize my early ideas for stories in a notebook, using a cheap fountain pen whose ink flows freely onto the paper. So at times I do enjoy the pleasures—and ostensible virtues—of writing longhand.

But with apologies to Cameron and Goldberg, I’m not going to do my morning freewriting that way. I can list three good reasons why.

First, writing in a notebook isn't as private as writing on my computer, where I can password-protect something and later securely delete it for all eternity if I so desire. It's not that I'm going to divulge any deep dark secrets in my daily practice. But the free spirit in my brain will know that whatever I write could potentially be seen by someone, and that will inhibit me: creative constipation, I call it. I already have problems turning off my Inner Editor and writing as if no one were watching. So for me at least, writing longhand would negate any benefit of spontaneity that allegedly arises from writing longhand.

Second, I don't want to waste paper. Despite my love for notebooks [I've got an entire drawer full of temptingly blank ones just waiting for me to write something profound in them], I don't want to use them for what amounts to "junk writing" that is intended only to clear my clogged creative pipes, then be cast aside. Maybe it's the Scots in me, but it seems needlessly profligate to write on paper when I know in advance I’m just going to throw it in the trash. Better to do it with ephemeral electrons on a digital screen instead.

Third, since my neck fusion surgery two years ago, it is physically painful for me to write more than a paragraph or so by hand: my muscles seize up almost immediately. Although the surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord was successful, some of the [thankfully minor] nerve damage was nonetheless permanent.

So between the physical pain of writing longhand, and the mental constipation I would feel in knowing that what I was writing could be found and read by anyone, I am going to respectfully agree to disagree with both these wise writer women. I don’t think that spending thirty to forty minutes each day writing by hand is going to “unlock” me creatively if it’s an ordeal that I dread. No, my daily writing practice is going to be done with a keyboard, on either of my auxiliary brains.

What are those? Philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has written extensively about how *any* tool—from a paper notebook to to a laptop computer—can with repeated use become so much a part of an individual's thinking process that it effectively functions as an extension of his or her mind. For Cameron and Goldberg and many of their students, this externalized brain is a pen and notebook. For me, however, it is either my Macbook Air or my iPad.

The keyboard has long ago become a conduit to my brain. And it isn’t just a matter of typing speed or ease either. I have spent so many years composing at the keyboard that the very act of sitting down with my laptop flips a switch in my head. The words don’t just appear faster on the screen; the thoughts and ideas that precede the words flow freely and without impediment. It’s a very fluid process for me, one that taps into a wellspring of ideas within—and isn’t that the whole point of morning pages and freewriting?

Don’t get me wrong—I love to write longhand. It has a beauty and permanence for me—a kind of durability—that writing on a computer screen does not. And that’s yet another reason why I don’t want to do my morning pages this way. My understanding from perusing Cameron’s website is that the point of morning pages is not to cling to them. You write them to purge yourself of things that may be blocking you, to center yourself, to meditate on the page. And then you let it all go. Morning pages aren’t meant to be re-read or savored.

But when I write with pen and paper, I feel a sense of special reverence that would make me more inhibited in what I wrote, not less. When I commit something to paper, it feels like something I want to preserve forever. And so I would feel more inclined to pause and ponder, to debate every word with myself, and ultimately to sputter and stall out and stop writing completely.

Of course, your experience with freewriting might be very different from mine; every writer works in his or her own mysterious way. But for these final two weeks in a cast [at least I hope they are the last two weeks] while I am confined largely to my bed or recliner, this will be my grand experiment. I will see if I can jump start my idling brain by doing my personal variation on morning pages—but on my lap, with my iPad Air and an external keyboard.

I will let you know how it goes.

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