The Magic of Writing By Hand

This one goes out to all the visual learners.

Last year, Alexander Chee wrote about the mental shift that occurs when he writes by hand instead of on a word processor. Here’s Chee’s chronicle of his first experience writing on a computer in 1986:

“Soon it seemed that as you wrote, you were typing into an electronic version of the book on a white page, a book that already existed somehow. This strange illusory version of first try best try, good at one go, contradicted the fact of a software program that made the text permanently revisable.”

That’s exactly what happens to me when I write on a computer—in short, my work just looks too damn good. That Times New Roman font can be deceptively pretty. It can keep me from seeing the flaws in my work, and in turn, can make everything I write feel a little more set in stone than it should be.

Enter the glorious legal pad. It saves me from myself every time. My writing time is usually a dance between the computer and the pad, and I usually warm up with pen and paper. Typing feels too performative sometimes.

Writing by hand brings me back to elementary school, when I insisted on toting around a composition notebook à la Harriet the Spy at all times. So much of writing is allowing ourselves the time and space to play the way a child might. Whenever I pull myself away from my big girl computer screen, the magic happens. On paper, I can access what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, would call my “inner child.”

On paper, I make lists of all kinds. A list of 10 things that could happen next whenever I get stuck in the middle of a scene. If I enter a new setting, like a character’s car, I make a list of 20 things I might find in her Honda Accord. If I don’t know how to end a story, I make a list of every single possible ending I can think of, writing down the first thing that comes to mind. It loosens me up and gets the wheels turning.

I also journal about what I’m writing—what’s eluding me, where I feel stuck. Since it takes me longer to write by hand than type, I’m forced to slow down my thoughts.

At the beginning of the year, I sprung for a dry erase board. It’s massive—five feet wide, double-sided, and on locking wheels. I worried it would be a huge waste of money. I worried it would just take up room in my writing space. But just a week after setting it up, I knew it was not a waste at all.

Something magical happened when I drew a character web on the board, drawing lines between characters’ names to show how the people in my novel know each other. I had two characters’ names side by side, and by seeing their names together like that, I suddenly realized that those two characters could be combined into one. This immediately tightened the novel’s structure. 

My dry erase board is a living mishmash of timelines, lists, half-baked ideas, and even diagrams of characters’ houses. Often, by leaving the mishmash on the board, I pass by it during the day, check in on what’s scribbled on it, and solve a problem. Just like that!

This kind of “checking in” on the dry erase board reminded me of something the amazing painter Susan Chen said in Mason Currey’s newsletter about moving her studio to her home last March during the Coronavirus outbreak:

“I had to adjust to this new live-work relationship. Working from home, you can check in on your paintings at the strangest hours, like at 4:00 a.m on your way to the bathroom, if you want.”

Clearly, Chen is talking more specifically about work/life balance here, but the idea of “checking in” on my work at strange times resonates with me. Having a visual manifestation of my novel on display, one I can access without having to open a document or a notebook, has kept the project closer to the front of my mind throughout the day.

Plus, sometimes it just feels good to draw an arrow from one idea to the next until the whole board looks like one big scribble.

In addition to reminding me what a visual learner I am, my dry erase board has proven to me just how futile my mind can be. We can only hold so many ideas in our brains at once. Whether it’s an idea on a whiteboard or a sticky note on the edge of a computer monitor, visual manifestations of our writing projects can help us stay curious about them throughout the day when our mind naturally starts to wander into territory beyond the tasks at hand. They sure have helped me.

Do you journal about the things you're trying to write? If so, what do you discover from writing about your writing?

“I’ve just started doing this. I’ve found it’s a low-pressure way to write that leads me to a better outcome when I finally have it all together to fully work on a piece.” —Mera

“I don’t journal at all. After reading Pepys’ diary at a young age, I’ve been terrified ever since of history recognizing the utter banality of my mind. If I can leave at least some mystery behind, you’d best believe I will.” —Michael

“Yes. Sometimes I discover why it is that I am trying to write this thing which in turn helps me write it.” —Zara

I’d love to hear about your writing life. Answer my reader questionnaire and I may include your response in future issues of the newsletter!

Submit Your Questionnaire

Upcoming Writing Workshops

Interested in working on your writing together? I am now enrolling for my workshop for fiction and nonfiction writers this May. Here’s what one happy student had to say about the class:

“Hurley created a wonderful environment for me to explore my voice as a writer. Throughout my three workshops with her, my work has grown exponentially in complexity and confidence thanks to her extremely helpful and thoughtful feedback. Whether you’re new, returning, or advanced, you will love this workshop experience.” —Lexi

My Tuesday night session filled up fast—thanks to everyone who signed up! Sign up soon if you’d like to reserve a spot in my Thursday night group.

Really Digging This

Here’s what I’ve been reading and loving lately.

Stay With Me — When I finished reading Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel, my jaw was on the floor. The book opens with a Nigerian woman who’s been trying to get pregnant for four years, whose husband, under the pressure of his family, has taken a second wife to do the same. What a way to open a book, right?! The story unravels from there into some of the highest stakes and most intense conflict I’ve ever read. This book is a masterclass in storytelling, essential for any fiction writer to read.

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves — I adored this anthology of essays about the importance (nay, cruciality!) of the representation of black women and girls in literature. Curated by Glory Edim, founder of the title’s eponymous book club, this collection of brilliant minds and thoughts was as lovely to read as its cover implies.

Tell me about your lonely victories.

“On to the revision process for the first draft of my novel!” —Julia

“I revised a troublesome pivotal chapter in my memoir after being unable to face it for months during lockdown. Something shifted after the Jan 20th presidential inauguration. I recovered the emotional reserves I needed to write about my own trauma again.” —Rebecca

I want to hear about your writing achievements, too! Answer my reader questionnaire and I may include your response in future issues of the newsletter.

Tell me about your lonely victories.

Interview with Michael Lowenthal for Vol. 1 Brooklyn

This week, I interviewed my friend Michael Lowenthal about his brand spankin’ new book, Sex with Strangers, for Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Read our conversation here, and while you’re at it, order the book—it’s phenomenal. Congratulations on your fifth book, Michael!

Lonely Victories is a labor of love. You can support my work by shopping my affiliate page or tipping me for coffee.

Special thanks to Becca Wucker for editing this issue and to Aysha Miskin for designing the Lonely Victories banner.

“Writing alone can give you a very deep sense of satisfaction and lonely victory.” —Greta Gerwig