Writing on pen and paper

My latest investment in writing technology involved a simple spiral bound notebook and a package of cheap stick pens. I set up a specific desk for this technology, a writing desk, in contrast to my earlier pride in buying my first typewriter desk back in the 80s. Just like then, this feels like an advancement in technology: writing in ball-point pen on paper.

Thinking back on it, my more creative writing occurred when I wrote on pen and paper. At the time, it was the only thing practically available. I didn’t know how to type. Even if I were able to afford a typewriter, I would have preferred to write silently on paper. Now that I think about it, at the time I would write out in paper first and then transfer it to typing. This was necessary because it was for school assignments and the teacher would reject papers with more than one or two corrections on a page.

It was exciting to experience the advancement toward electronic typewriters and then to word-processing software with printers. I became a prolific typist and so that it feels more natural to me than handwriting despite typing being something I picked up later in life.

I began writing anew with pen and paper late at night, at that mysterious time at around 1AM when I wake up and will not fall back asleep until after 3AM. There is something special about that time that unlocks ideas I normally don’t occur during the day. However, I have typed many posts here at that time so I have something to compare against. I quickly realized there was something fundamentally different about my thinking while writing on pen and paper compared to typing.

Clearly the bio-mechanics is completely different. When typing my wrists are glued to the wrist rest while just the tips of my fingers on both hands move, one finger per letter. When writing, it is completely different. One hand moves while the other just gets out of the way, and the entire hand is engaged in the construction of a single letter, one letter at a time. I can type faster than I can write, and certainly I can type a single character faster than I can draw it. This must have an effect on my thinking.

I imagine different parts of the brain are involved in thinking and and controlling the hand in writing. I imagine that the two parts can run in parallel. I can think and write at the same time. But there is a difference when writing. The thinking part of my brain must stop to let the writing catch up to the thoughts. This is a very noticeable delay when compared to typing.

I feel content in that my typing can keep up with my thinking. The consequence is that I can go from thought to thought quickly because my typing keeps up. I feel that this is very valuable because it allows me to get out an entire thought as it is in my mind, uninterrupted. I suspect I end up writing down thoughts that I would not complete had I written then using pen and paper. I feel this is valuable. The result is a very faithful preservation of my thinking at the time. But, it may also be invaluable.

When typing this way, there is a need for an editor. As any reader of this blog would notice, I could use an editor. I’ve published many a post without even proof-reading it. I don’t recall ever editing it in terms of rewriting paragraphs or rearranging content. It suits my purposes because I want to record my unedited thoughts in all their inelegance. It is valuable because it records not only what I was thinking at the time, but also how I was thinking, how I went from thought to thought, close to what happens when I just sit and stare out a window. My blogging is not useful in the sense of conveying knowledge or wisdom. It is just an attempt to record a mind thinking.

Something different happens when writing by hand. My hand writing simply cannot keep up with the speed of my thinking so my thinking has to stop. My thoughts take a paragraph to capture, but my hand can write only one letter at a time. While waiting for the hand to catch up, my thinking mind is idled. It gets bored waiting for the hand to catch up. This now-bored part of my brain starts to wander.

While I write out the thought my brain has tasked my writing hand to capture, the bored brain wanders up to the words I have already written. The words on the page above where I am now writing. It even looks at the now reversed letters exposed by the indentations of the previous page now turned over. I’m still writing down the thought that was tasked to my hand to write, but my brain is looking back at what I had written before. To this bored part of this brain, the already written word appears somewhat alien as if it came from another writer.

I’m still writing down the continuation of the thought from previous sentences and paragraphs but my brain is starting to challenge those words. It begins to argue with the words it sees on paper. This sometimes trips up the completion of the sentence I was attempting to write, but is almost always interrupts my thought. When I finish the sentence or paragraph, I now have a very different brain to contend with. It has a new thought colored by what upset it from what it saw above. The new thought may be a continuation of the initial thought but it is recognizably different from what I originally thought was coming next. At the extreme, I end up crossing out entire clauses, entire sentences, or even entire paragraphs.

Such in-flight corrects hardly ever happens when typing. It happens at least once each page when writing by hand. There is clearly something different happening in my thinking when writing compared to when typing. When typing, I’d complete an entire 2500 word post before even contemplating editing it. If I do edit it, the edit merely cleans up some parts, preserving the overall flow and ultimate conclusion.

Writing by hand a real-time form of editing occurs and this editing completely changes the direction the narrative is going, sometimes to the point of baring no resemblance to how it started. I would just draw a line at some point several pages after I started and identify that as the first words of the essay. The first couple pages were that irrelevant.

I know I started writing with a thought in mind, but that thought never got a chance to get on paper. My thinking mind got bored waiting for the hand to catch up. What follows is a refutation of the original thought, before that thought had a chance to completely express itself. I am more interested in the refutation of my thoughts than I am of my thoughts. Those initial thoughts did not disappear, they were not deterred by the refutation, but they also failed to get preserved on paper. Instead, what is preserved is my argument against what is on my mind.

I feel that my (unedited) typing is very close to how I think. This is different from saying that my typing is capturing what I believe. Typing is a close a record of how I think. My beliefs may underlie the words, but they rarely come out explicitly.

My hand writing is capturing something very different. It is another level of abstraction. As typing is an abstraction of thinking processes over underlying beliefs, hand writing is an abstraction of self-criticism of my thinking process (while still being faithful to my beliefs).

Complementary to my brain getting bored while waiting for my hand to catch up, my hand gets cramped from the exercise of writing. This is particularly a problem now because my hands are so out of practice of writing. I recall decades ago when I could write at a relatively good pace for about 20 pages of writing before my hand would cramp to the point of having enough writing for one night. Even that is low compared to how much I can type. But now my hand gets uncomfortable after just a couple pages. I’m sure that this will improve as I exercise the hand, but at some point my hands will say they had enough writing and then the brain is put into an even level of idleness. It is not waiting for the hand to catch up, it is waiting for the the hand to get back to work.

When I would write a long time, there would be times where I would pause and just shake the hand like shaking water off of a rag. That pause alone would be enough for the mind to wander. But inevitably, the entire project would be put on hold until the next day. Given my late-night writing schedule, that meant going to sleep.

The next day’s writing would attempt to pick up the thoughts I had previously. To remind myself where I left off, I would read what I had written below. That reading itself would provoke the mind to object to were the thinking was going, and that mind would also be transformed by a night of sleeping on the thought. It is a noticeably different mind at work on the next day than on the previous one. This gets captured in the writing. The writing is on a journey of its own.

This does not happen when I’m typing. I usually can complete a thought in a single sitting. The changes in thinking occur between posts, or chapters if I were writing a book. The content within the post is reasonably consistent with what was on my mind when I started writing. This benefit over writing by hand may explain why I like typing. I want to get my thoughts down.

Faithfully capturing thoughts (or thinking) is not as creative as writing by hand, and consequently it is not as fun. The process of writing by hand seems to result in something that is more important, more weighty, than just merely writing what is on my mind. Handwriting benefits from a more robust feedback loop of scrutiny of what I’m actually writing. When writing creatively, the feedback improves the creativity. When writing cautiously, the feedback reinforces that caution.

Typing, especially when done quickly and without editing, lacks this feedback loop. One published, whether it is clicking publish on a blog post, or hitting send on an email, or hitting enter in an instant-message session, this unedited raw thought gets communicated for others to respond to. They will be responding to a less guarded message than if the message were first hand written.

The recent decades advances of Internet (Internet 2.0) of any-person to any-person rapid communication involves a lot of messaging typed quickly and then sent immediately. This has had a profound impact on our society. We interact with each other very differently than before, and this is as true between groups as it is between the individuals communicating within those groups.

Prior to Internet 2.0 (social internet), we had two options of vocal communications or handwritten (or ribbon typewritten) messages.

Vocal communications in person are over phones were instantaneous and rarely recorded. We would leave those conversations with some idea of what was said but often with an incomplete memory of each and every word or sentence.

In contrast, written messages took time to write and even more time to deliver. These written messages often would be preserved or even copied so that they can be recalled word-for-word at a later time and possibly by a different audience.

We once had this choice of two modes of communication, and society adapted around these different ways of communicating. There was a difference between speech (especially in argumentation as opposed to reading from a script) and writing. Speaking was intended to be momentary, to exchange some idea, or convince someone of some larger point or goal — the point or goal was more significant the spoken words themselves. In contrast, writing carried with it the reader’s presumption of careful word selection and the writers presumption that the writing would be preserved. We expected that written words would be subject to challenge even long after written.

Internet 2.0 changed that. Everything now is presumed to be recorded and copied. Anyone may receive the words expressed whether it is written or spoken, and everyone will receive it once someone points out the objectionable aspects of those words. Spontaneous utterances have the same endurance as carefully crafted written essays. Carefully crafted written essays are dismissed as equal to spontaneous utterances.

We lost track of the differences in modes of communications. In particular, the different niches these modes once had in society. Society benefited from daily conversations made without any risk of being recorded and played back or shared later. Similarly, society benefited from edited prose that was specifically intended for preservation and sharing with larger audiences.

Lacking some major solar storm event that knocks out the world’s power grid and thus Internet grid, we are stuck with the new paradigm. Interpersonal communication is always will be preserved and disseminated at any time when it becomes relevant. Words spoken casually decades ago can be used much later, long past the relevance of the original conversation.

We lost the aspect of context in conversation. When taken out of context, the words should have no meaning. We lost that pretext of context. Every statement becomes significant on its own. Every quote is either a potential encapsulation of wisdom, or an indictment of some person’s flaws.

Meanwhile, words carefully crafted are treated as a conversation. We dissect out short quotes out of a document intended to convey some larger argument. We then insist that the fragment be defended as a stand-alone assertion.

Given this current backdrop of the Internet, there is a new appeal to directing writing energies back to pen and paper. Writing with pen on paper allows the thoughts to develop on their own, with no outside visibility. The thoughts may take days or even months to develop even as I write them down daily. The words remain protected in a notebook. Even if, as is very likely, I never publicize or share the written word with anyone else, it will benefit me by allowing my ideas to develop through the feedback processes of writing and reflection.

The other benefits of handwriting is that in its form (and with my penmanship) the writing is highly unlikely to be read by anyone else. Even someone who gets access to my notebook would need extraordinary motivation to struggle through the scrawling on the page. I am aware of this while I’m writing. This alone relaxes the mind to let its guard down. It knows that this is just for myself.

Its been more than 4 decades since I’ve handwritten in paragraphs over multiple pages. I have a lot to discuss with myself.


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