Lightness Visible

by Julie Brickman

Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty

When I was a girl in elementary school, while everyone else was taking tap dancing and music lessons, I was learning to type.  My mother thought typing was a crucial skill and there I sat, day after day, in front of a shiny black Underwood typewriter, painstakingly typing a a a, b b b until I made my way through the alphabet to real words. The lessons came out of a navy blue hardcover manual that opened bottom to top like a steno pad.  To this day, I love the whirring sound of a typewriter roller moving from left to right as the carriage return lever realigns the paper for the next line.   

As I writer, I’ve been typing or keyboarding stories and drafts since I was a kid.  My process has always begun at a keyboard.

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So it was startling to me when I began to write the first draft of my most recent story by hand.  I was jotting down notes from a trip in a spiral notebook, the kind I use to journal. And then, quietly, without the flurry of noise my mind usually generates about change, I began to handwrite a story.  I could hear the shift in the voice, suddenly a story voice emerged: male, sorrowing, angry.  At first I was going to let it go, because I don’t write stories this way. I sit at a computer, sometimes my desktop but more often at my laptop in different parts of the house or in coffeeshops, hotel lobbies, scenic overlooks.  But then I thought, hey, it’s a gift, go with it, see what happens. So I let myself write on. The voice belonged to a character on a ship, registered as a tourist but working an undercover job. I didn’t know a lot about him, except that he loved the sea, felt responsible for his wife’s death, believed himself to be an unfit human specimen, cared little about his fate, which made him good at his job. 

Now I’m almost through the first draft, all in a notebook. It intrigues how different it is from writing on a computer, how much I’m enjoying it.  I love the quiet of the notebook, the pen.  It seems to access a matching quiet inside me. That writing quiet, so far from the babble, the urgency, of the mind that tells me what I should be doing: the email, tasks, bills, phone calls.

But it was more than that.  It was easier to write the storyline through.  The drive to perfect each word, each sentence, each page as I wrote diminished. I could postpone the sweet pleasures of artistic fiddling and revision. I didn’t need to finish each development in the plot as long as I got down what it was. Research problems didn’t send me off on a search engine tangent; I merely made a note, comfortably saving another pleasure for the joy of revision.

It also seemed as though I could drop into it anywhere, write a few more lines. I didn’t lose the thread. I didn’t have to deliberate over where to stop to make it easier to start again the next time.  It gave me room to write. After all, it was just scribbling in a notebook. I might or might not move it into the formality of the computer. No longer were the machine and its options exerting control over what I did.  It was just me and my pen and my notebook.  Instruments do matter, as do places where we write.  For now, I like it this way.  I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue for the next draft or the next story.  I just know I have a new option. And it seems like it’s helping me move towards that place William Styron might have called lightness visible.  That’s a lot to get out of a notebook and a pen.  Next time, I might even try an old Underwood typewriter.

I’m really curious about what you might have discovered or tried as writers to change your process.  Have you made major shifts in how you write?  Do you use the same process for each draft or change each time?   Does writing in another genre make you write differently?  How do you change it up?  I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts if you have a chance to post them.

Julie Brickman is author of the story collection, Two Deserts and the novel What Birds Can Only Whisper. Her fiction has appeared in the North American Review, the Louisville Review, the Barcelona Review and other journals, her nonfiction in the International Journal of Women’s Studies, Kinesis and the anthology States of Rage, her book reviews in the San Diego Union Tribune. She has been teaching on the fiction faculty of Spalding University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program since its inception in October, 2001. www.juliebrickman.com

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4 thoughts on “Lightness Visible

  1. Wonderful essay, and helps me understand why I, too, often compose by hand. Never have I seen it explained just this clearly and succinctly. Julie did a fantastic job with this piece.

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  2. Julie,
    I know that quiet place with pen and notebook in hand. That is how I have journaled since 1976. Something about the act of writing in such a simple, un-machined, completely offline way, seems to open pathways to more essential thoughts, observations, feelings and insights. I haven’t written an actual story longhand in many, many years. But the stories I am writing now draw deeply on the writings in my journals, and, so far, those handwritten notes always seem to be the source for the best stuff.
    —John Styron

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  3. Thank you for this, Julie. The shift between composing on paper and on the computer is a big one for me, too. I like paper (a journal) for freewriting and for the freedom it allows me–the sense that what I’m doing is play; the feeling that it’s okay to experiment and explore. That sense of freedom is much harder for me to come by when I’m composing on a computer.

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  4. Nice essay, Julie. That perspective took me back to college when I wrote a story for a creative writing class on a pad that I carried with me everywhere I went for the purpose of revision.

    Unfortunately, my penmanship, never good to begin with (it was the only thing I ever received a “c” in in elementary school when we were actually graded on such things), has deteriorated to the point where there are occasions that I cannot read it. I’m chained to the computer.

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