I taught myself to touch type as soon as I started taking writing seriously. My handwriting is largely illegible to other people and after a few days, when I’ve forgotten what I was saying, to me as well. Learning to type was straightforward. I didn’t like the look of the exercises in the typing guides so instead I found out which finger was supposed to operate which key on the typewriter and made sure that’s what I used. After a slow start things improved quickly. Before too long I was able to type faster than I could write.
But sometimes speed isn’t the problem. If things aren’t going well writing faster isn’t going to help. Sometimes the words won’t come at all, sometimes they come easily but don’t seem to count. It’s at moments like this I tend to reach for my pen. To explain why I need to talk about running.
At school I was a sprinter. Fast over short distances, hopeless at anything over 200m. Sprinting is not a good idea when you’re middle aged and over-weight. So I’d largely discounted running as a way of keeping fit. Then I discovered Park Run – a free Saturday timed 5k run which happens in parks all over the country. It’s informal, friendly and beyond a pair of running shoes doesn’t require any special gear. You run with people of all shapes and sizes, some with dogs on leads, others trundling pushchairs or being dragged along by eight year olds. A couple of hundred people turn out on the cliffs in Gorleston. If you run it in nearby Norwich the pack can often be 500 strong. It isn’t a race, it’s simply a run against your own best time. Inevitably there is pressure to get faster and strive for that elusive PB. Initially I pushed myself a little harder each week but as my times started to come down I began dreading the next run. (No pain/No gain has always seemed trumped by No pain/No pain.) Clearly if I was going to run long term I needed a plan.
So instead of trying to run faster, I decided to concentrate on running more smoothly. At once things got better. I started looking forward to pulling on my running shoes again, and strangely my times didn’t suffer. Something similar happens with writing.
When I pick up my pen I’m forced to slow down. Especially if I take care to form letters on the page properly instead of dropping straight into my usual scrawl.
If my hand slows down then my brain has to slow down too. Because that’s the way writing works. We don’t assemble words in head, sort them into sentences and then write them down. Writing is like speech in that words are formed (as the linguists have it) at the point of utterance. When you start a sentence you don’t usually know how it’s going to end. You set out on a journey and trust your experience of language – it’s vocabulary, rhythm, and cadence – will get you safely to where you want to go. It’s a creative act with a mechanical component – they physical act of transcription, hand and brain in sync. A good pen makes transcription like painting words onto the paper. It can introduce a meditative element, smoothing out the transcription process. It’s therapeutic. For me this slow, deliberate, hooking up of the writing arm to the writing brain has a way of removing obstacles. Of freeing me up.
There’s something else. Word processing can be undone by a couple of clicks. So there is no real need to commit yourself. If everything can be changed, why worry? But handwriting is indelible. It’s much harder to scatter words in an approximation of what you want to say and edit them into shape. (Though you will anyway.) Somehow with a pen in my hand the temptation to approximate disappears. Don’t sketch, says the voice in my head, get it said.
So when things aren’t going well this is what I tell myself. I can write faster with a keyboard. But I can write better with a pen. Some days it’s even true.