Writing and the Creative Life: The Tactile Experience of Writing

A few years back, I was sitting in my office letting my mind wander when a thought suddenly occurred to me: Why do I call what I do ‘writing’ when so little of the process involves the actual physical act of writing. I mean, literally pen on paper.

I started to trace back in time how I used to write compared to how I had come to write.

When I first started screenwriting, I had three forms of paper I used for any project. First, there was your basic spiral notebook like this:

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These are what I used for research and brainstorming. I would read books and articles, then transcribe by hand quotes, anecdotes, and bits of business from what I was reading into the notebook. Then whatever story thoughts and ideas I had, I’d write those down, too, marking them with an asterisk on the left-hand side to signify this was something I should consider for the story. I’d often go through 2 or 3 notebooks during this phase. And then, I would cull through those notes and transcribe the best stuff into a Word file on my computer.

When I moved into plotting, I buy a pack of these:

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I’d write down each story beat or scene onto an individual index card. Then I would divide the cards up into four stacks: Act I, Act IIA, Act IIB, Act III. Next I’d work and rework the order of the cards in each group until I felt like I could see the movie and the scenes worked from one to the next. Putting them all together in linear order, I’d finally move to my computer and create an outline, transferring all of that information on each card to an electronic file, Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3, etc.

The third type of paper I’d use was this:

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I didn’t use a pencil, as pictured, rather the same type of pen for decades: Pentel Rolling Writer. As I prepared to type each scene — I’m talking the actual page-writing part of the process now — I would sit, clear my mind, and try to feel my way through the scene, writing it out by hand. Then I take those notes, sit at my computer, and translate what I’d written into my script file.

Over time, I changed. As I sat there in my office musing that day about why I had shifted away from actual pen-on-paper writing, a few realizations emerged.

For one thing, when I was developing and producing some TV series focusing on the eco-friendly lifestyle, I made a conscious choice to stop using so much paper products. Considering the nearly 30 movie and TV projects I had written for studios and networks, along with numerous more that never got set up — notebooks, legal pads, and printing out every draft of each script — I figured I personally will have been responsible for the premature death of the Brazilian rain forest.

Another thing: When you read about me transcribing research into notebooks and index cards into outlines, that was a laborious process. And you’re right. I remember my argument, that somehow this type of double duty helped drive home the research into my brain. As far as the outlining was concerned, I had a similar defense: The process gave me one additional hurdle before committing to this scene or this take. But as I moved my writing more and more to my computer, I eventually started doing pretty much everything electronically. Instead of notebooks, I created a Master Brainstorming List on my computer into which everything would go. Instead of sketching out scenes on legal pads, I created a Script Diary on my computer where I would do the same thing. The only paper remnant I have kept this whole time are the index cards. That I have refused to give up.

So I asked myself why keep working with index cards? I knew the answer immediately: Because of the tactile experience. Feeling the cards in my hands. Writing notes on the cards in teeny, tiny print. Shuffling cards. Arranging them on a table or the floor. Tacking them up on the wall to see. At that stage, this is the story coming to life, and there is something about that feeling, the physical sensation of those cards in my hands that reinforced my sense of the story emerging into being.

As I sat in my office thinking these deep thoughts, I had a profound feeling: I missed writing. The actual act of pen on paper. So here’s what I did. I bought one of these:

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For the past few years, I have used these just to write. Free writing. Every so often to do some reflection about plans or the meaning of life, but mostly just to loosen my brain and let the words flow. I’m not sure it’s improved my writing any, but I know I enjoy it.

So much of writing takes place when we’re not seated at our desk. Thoughts we have as we take a walk or drive our car. And, of course, much of it does take place while we are in front of our computer. All of that is writing, no doubt about it.

However there is something special about the tactile experience of writing, an actual pen or pencil on actual paper, a writing utensil in your hand, scratching down words that appear not as some impersonal font on a computer screen, but rather in your very own handwriting.

Words. Created. On. Paper.

The tactile experience of writing.

I’m curious if anyone else has had this type of experience. Have you drifted away from paper? How has that affected your writing? Do you feel like you need pen and paper to be creative? Or maybe you prefer doing everything electronically.

If you have a few minutes, please head to comments and share your thoughts. I’d appreciate reading what you have to say.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted July 24, 2014]

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