My #2 Pencil

Do you compose on paper? On your computer? Or somewhere in between? These days, I compose on paper, on my computer, standing on my head. Any way the muse strikes me. But back twenty-five years ago when I started out, I brushed off my trusty #2 pencil and wrote everything intended for publication longhand. Back then, in addition to reading how-to books, I read up on authors' lives--how they got their ideas, their trials and tribulations, etc. In this post, I thought it might be interesting to explore how famous writers did their composing. I've summarized a few.

Quirky, Yet Effective

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens - 1835-1910), lived in many houses during his lifetime, but he owned only one special bed. It is large and decadent, made of carved oak; he and his wife Olivia bought it in 1878 in Venice, Italy. Today, Twain's bed can be viewed at his 19-room Victorian mansion in Hartford, Connecticut.

It is in Twain's beloved bed that he did much of his writing, including Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain was enthusiastic about this writing method, as quoted in the May 9, 2010 article, "Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," by Lisa Waller Rogers. "Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn't much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down." Truman Capote said he wrote "horizontally," lying down in bed or on a couch. He would write the first two drafts in longhand, in pencil; and although draft three would be accomplished on a typewriter, it was done in bed. Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada, stood up and wrote on 3 x 5 index cards. Once captured on the cards, scenes could be rearranged later. Nabokov's novel, Ada, took up more than 2,000 cards! For his best inspiration Stanley, a journalist and one of my favorite characters in the recent STARZ miniseries, "Dancing on the Edge," which took place in London during the early 1930s, pounded out his articles on his '30s-era typewriter under the sun and stars on the roof that adjoined his office. Twain said it best, as one of America's best loved authors was known to do, "I used to think there was only one place where I could write, and that was in Elmira, [New York] . . ." where Twain spent his summers. "But I've got over that notion now. I find that I can write anywhere."

Mind-Hand-Heart Combo

Remember in grade school when the pencils we carried in our zipper bags had to be #2's? #1's simply wouldn't do (my #1's squeaked anyway, and came out looking light and weak. And for the record, mechanical pencils never worked for me.) Just for fun I did a five-minute online search and found many U.S. school systems still require #2's in 3rd-5th grade. Some school systems didn't specify. One required a #2 with eraser, and a pencil or cigar box! The term "cigar box" was followed by "Plastice, small size with secure lid." Okay, so the term "cigar box" is used loosely here? Does anyone even have a cigar box these days?

Later, I got Bic'd. I was never the same. What a smooth ride my Bic pen was. That lasted a while. Much later, when I became a writer in earnest I had to revert back to my pencil, mainly so I could erase all the mistakes. I had good company. After all, didn't Capote write his first drafts in pencil? Hey, the research backs us up (Capote and me, that is.) According to John Roger and Paul Kaye in their book, Living the Spiritual Principles of Health and Well-Being, there is an important connection between your brain and hand. "The neural impulses from the fingers are sent back to the brain so that the writing actually releases and records the patterns of the unconscious. I call them 'beach balls,' those things we have suppressed for a long, long time and on which we have expended energy to keep under the surface. They can carry tremendous emotion. So at times you may end up writing very forcefully."

Trial by Fire

In this field of ours, no one gets to bypass the heart. I was no exception. In the beginning, one night I woke up in a cold sweat and actually sat up in bed. I wanted to write freelance articles for our local newspaper but I had to ask myself, Who am I to think I can put together an article anyone would want to read? I was scared. But I couldn't ignore what my heart was telling me to do. I read a lot of how-to books and then went out and found a subject, a blind woman who was a storyteller. I interviewed her and took copious notes in ink. I also recorded every word she said. Then, somewhat like Capote, I laid down on my couch and transposed the interview. As you can imagine, this took hours and hours. All in ink. Even then, I understood the difference between ink and pencil. I couldn't use my pencil. I couldn't take the chance that my notes might smudge; every word had to be verbatim. When I finally got to writing the piece, I reverted back to pencil, wrote it all out in longhand, then typed it on my computer, printed it and hand-delivered it to the editor who had told me he would read it "On spec." Happy days, he accepted it! Thus was born my very first published article. We won't mention that my husband took the photo for the article and made three times more than I did. The fact was, I had sold my first piece.

I soon found that this method took far too long. I had to learn how to compose on my computer. Luckily, this turned out to be a natural transition, and I soon arrived at a comfortable compromise, which is how I have continued to compose today. It doesn't matter where I start--on paper or on the computer, though composing on the computer is faster. The important thing is I begin. I go as far as I can. Usually this first inkling of a story stinks. But of course, that's the nature of the beasty first draft. After the initial flow, I usually write the rest on the computer and print it. It sits for a while. The first edit takes place at a different place than my desk on paper, with my pencil. Oh how refreshing a change of scene can be! Back to the computer. This back-and-forth process continues until the piece is finished.

#2 Goes to Work

Recently, I took another look at a short story that needed revising. Over several years I have tried to make this story work. But, the plot was weak. I've never given up on it, though, thanks to advice from one of my creative writing instructors. She encouraged our class to never give up on a story--just re-work it. Since then following her advice, I have sold several stories that needed a new ending, cutting down, etc. So with this story, I tried an experiment. I changed the point of view, or main character, from an animal to a human (a boy). The transformation was stunning. Gone was the anthropomorphic world I had created, which I understand has very few markets anyway. Enter a realistic story. True, I had to give up much of the original story's charm. Who knows, maybe that charm can work in a new story. The important thing is, I now have a new main character and a viable story. Which brings me to my point: The changes couldn't have been accomplished without a  mind-heart connection--on paper--and without a pencil. I have learned from experience that the very first idea, or change in this instance, may not be the best. However, it's a first attempt, so I write it down. I see if the new idea fits with the story. If it doesn't, I erase it and put in a another new idea. I keep going until I start to feel excited. That's another indicator I have learned. That you will know when the story works. For me, my feelings about the story go from ho-hum to visceral excitement. I rant and pace and get out of breath, I love it so! Thanks to my pencil, I suppose composing in this way offers flexibility, much like the 3 x 5 cards Nabokov used. I had to learn, though, that so many story fixes don't work. I had to learn that often better ideas have to evolve. It is the rare story or article that falls in place and takes very little editing. Although happily, those do occur. With re-worked stories, once the necessary elements are covered--once the story works--the process of editing by going back and forth between paper and computer can begin. Until finally, the story is ready for market.

Next month: My Purple Notebook

For more information, please visit the websites below that were consulted for this article:
"Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," May 9, 2010 by lisa waller rogers
"Mark Twain in Hartford," by Susan Breslow Sardone
"Learn from the Greats: 7 Writing Habits of Amazing Writers," by Leo Babauta
"Weird Writing Habits of Famous Authors, December 25, 2011, by Kathleen Massara

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Highlights for Children, Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what an interesting article. I remember my #2 pencil. My grandsons need them now in school. And, I remember my uncle's cigar boxes!

I've read a number of times that it's better to hand write than to type, but if I try to write on paper I begin to rush and my writing gets sloppier and sloppier. And, I can't keep up with my thoughts. So . . . I'm a computer user. :)

Linda Wilson said...

That's interesting, Karen. And I'm sure much more efficient. The computer is so much faster. We each find the best way that works for us and that gives us the most enjoyment. If I did my work standing up like Nabokov I'd be standing for hours on end! And if in bed, I'd be asleep!

Linda Wilson said...

Writers: How do you compose? I'd love to hear what process you go through. Please stop by and let us know. Happy New Year to one and all. May 2014 bring you your heart's desire.

Melinda Brasher said...

I love the little tidbits about different authors' writing habits.

I personally write mostly on a word processor (often on my bitty laptop in bed or sitting on the floor). I revise and delete and switch orders of things around so much that it's by far the most practical. However, if I get really stuck, there's nothing like pen and paper to un-stick me, and when I'm in the middle of a project, I carry a notebook with me (a real notebook--made of paper) so I can jot down ideas and phrases whenever they pop into my mind.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you for commenting, Melinda. It's interesting to hear how you write. It helps me in my own process to think about how you do it. In bed, hmm, two very famous writers immediately come to mind. I must try it. There must be a secret to success in there somewhere!

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