Lessons From a Quick Mind and a Slow Hand
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
When I started a writing meditation practice back in the spring of 2016, I made a big change to my writing style when I pulled out a pen and a spiral notebook to capture my thoughts. After so many years of going straight to the computer keyboard with all my writing, this shift felt foreign and old school simultaneously.
Immediately, I struggled with how quickly my mind moved and how slowly my hand did. But my teachers----first Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way) and later Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones)----both insist on handwriting rather than typing for writing practice. It doesn't matter if I'm writing for three-pages or just 10 minutes. They both proclaim the mind links differently to the hand than it does to the keyboard. Each method delivers a very different product. Not good or bad, just different.
Writing by hand felt like my third grade attempts at cursive. Remember that off-white paper with the vast spaces for big looping letters and a dotted line down the horizontal middle to keep those letters in line? I can still recall the feeling of placing each letter carefully on that special paper. It was a painstaking process requiring significant effort back then. And here I was again.
However, since I was going for practice over production, I dutifully followed Cameron and Goldberg's instructions and put up with the lag between the speed of my thoughts and the speed of my hand. I figured with consistent repetition it would get more comfortable, and I was right.
It didn't take long for my brain and my hand to find a synchronicity. It's not as fast as the combination of my mind and a keyboard, but it's now tolerable. And I'm enjoying the subtle shift in my mind. This slower way of crafting my words and placing them on the page is tickling a different part of my writer's mind----a more contemplative one that's less worried about what's coming out on the page.
Per Natalie Goldberg's counsel in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, I've found my pen choice can decrease the lag between my brain and hand. "Get a fast pen" rang in my ears when I tested each option at my local art store.
“First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don't want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen. A ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip, for sure, are slow. Go to a stationery store and see what feels good to you. Try out different kinds. Don't get too fancy and expensive. I mostly use a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, about $1.95.... You want to be able to feel the connection and texture of the pen on paper.” -- Natalie Goldberg
After playing around with a lot of pen choices, I found the Sharpie fine tipped pens that don't bleed through the paper work best for my writing style. They come not only in black, blue, and red, but also a multi-color pack. The artist in me likes to pick my color based on my daily prompt and my mood for the day. So I indulged in the 12 pen option with the hard case.
I've also found the angle and height of my paper makes a difference as well. If I'm getting a hand cramp or feeling off in the flow of my writing, I examine and adjust my positioning. Sometimes just re-angling the paper changes my speed.
There's method to the madness in writing by hand instead of by keyboard. For one, it signals a shift between the writing I do for my job and the writing I do for meditative purposes. Plus there's a lot of science behind the link between the brain and the hand in how we learn.
Pens and keyboards employ different cognitive processes for writing. Handwriting is a complex task involving paper and pen or pencil plus movement in a precise manner. You must direct not only the action but the form based on the letter chosen. This action is decidedly different from fingertips placed on a keyboard, which requires virtually the same movement for every letter, according to Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. It took a lot of years for each of us to fine tune our motor skills to write cursive, and our brains developed right along side that movement even. In writing meditation, I've found using my handwriting over typing has another significant benefit. The physicality of writing helps me bypass my "social self" and her band of mind monkeys (aka my inner critic/editor), and allows my "essential self" to come through a little louder and certainly more clear.
I'm freer to say what's really on my mind when I hand write. My inner editor stays on the sidelines as I go at the daily prompt with a pen and at least 10 minutes on my timer. This stands in deep contrast to how my inner editor kicks in as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard and all those grammar and spell checkers chime in to tell me how to improve my writing!
“With handwriting we come closer to the intimacy of the author...Each person’s hand is different: the gesture is charged with emotion, lending it a special charm.” -- Philippe Artières
My truth comes through in my writing practice when I'm linking the letters together with my version of cursive. And that's what I'm going for as I tap into my willingness to be vulnerable and let the healing flow of my wild mind take over.
I've even switched to pen on paper for my first drafts of my current writing project, a memoir. I kept hitting writer's block when I typed as I wrote. I found some new momentum when I separated the first draft from the second with pen and paper. And when I'm stumped for a story to write about, bits and pieces of my writing meditation practice serve as launching pads. I just pick up the thread from one of my 10-minute writing meditations and keep going.
A memoir is a more emotional piece anyway, so using handwriting first makes sense based on what I've learned from writing meditation practice. Bottom line: I'm getting to my core more seamlessly now. And when I transfer my written words to the computer, my inner editor is now useful rather than a hinderance to creating deep and impactful prose.