Kate Hoyle is a poet and visual artist from Moraga, California. Her work has been published in Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, The AUDACITY and Smokelong Quarterly. Her five poem series, On America, is currently touring the US and South America on exhibit in U2’s Joshua Tree World Tour. You can see more of her work at katehoyle.com
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BY SHEILA LAMB
The first draft always begins on paper with ink. Sometimes, the first handwritten words are a line, a sentence, a phrase. Sometimes, a scene. Usually, these words will not be in the final story. But they mark the magical moment where the story began.
I find ideas flow better from paper to pen. When I handwrite, I write fast. Inspiration can be elusive and I want to get the words on paper without disruption. There is a smooth connection from pen to hand, something that, for me, pencils don’t give. Computers certainly don’t. The pen is, literally, a fluid implement. I favor gel pens (a Pilot G-2). It’s part of the whole flow of words, from thought to paper. I’ll use pencils in a pinch, but graphite tends to smudge and fade. There’s also a rub as the pencil hits the page, a dryness, a physical sensation, that gives me the shivers – like fingernails on the chalkboard. Occasionally, there is the issue of broken lead and the search for a pencil sharpener. Pencils, despite their simplicity, have too many complications and they are not my utensil of choice.
Ballpoint pens are another option. They are easy to find, ten to a pack. However, they are my second choice. Words don’t glide from a ballpoint as they do from a gel pen. Like the pencil, the ballpoint ink to paper has a palpable feel that is off-putting to me. Ballpoint ink can be thick and gloopy, and sometimes leaves thick globules at the end of sentences. Although ballpoints are certainly preferable to computer keyboards, they don’t have the smoothness of a gel pen.
Writing by hand is second nature to me. Perhaps because I’ve handwritten stories since elementary school, when they gave us green penmanship paper with fat, chunky pencils. I’ve kept paper and pen journals since high school. It’s easier for me to reach for pen and paper than trudge to the laptop, wait for it to start, find the folder, open the file, and pray the program doesn’t freeze or mysteriously return me to last week’s temp file draft. All those layers of technology slow the inspiration, that spark of a new story or pivot within a plot.
For short stories, I write the entire first draft — or what I think is the entire draft at the time — on paper. Most of it begins in my bedside journals. My recent story, “Hunger, Not Tame,” began after a camping trip to Assateague. I journaled about our trip and the feral horses. I was infuriated with the tourists, who petted and fed potato chips to the horses on the beach.
That incident was the scene that stuck, and the one that gave way to story. I began to play on paper, shifting from my journal to a spiral notebook — last-day-of-school perks of the teaching trade — expanding the scene into a story, in longhand. I witnessed Kate, the main character, grow from this exploration: a park employee who confronted the people tossing Doritos at the horses. I write until I come to what feels like a stopping point — the end of a scene or section of dialogue. If I’m lucky, I’ll discover the final sentence here. Something in the shape of the words lets me know that this is it — this phrase where the story will end.
In writing by hand, I’ve discovered that this is where I battle my writing demons. For me, past defines the present, so as a writer, I struggle with back-story. Actually, I revel in it. I spend a lot of time figuring out how my character made her way to the start of the story. I tend to develop psychology before I develop plot. Why is the character there? What makes her do what she is doing? Writing those back-story details by hand is necessary for me to create the character. I’m fine knowing many of those initial, raw words won’t make it into the next draft. The process paints a picture, so I know who I’m dealing with as I place her in situations she’d rather not be in. The potato-chip tourists barely made it into the final draft. Even though they were the beginning, in the end, they were a brief, two-sentence presence. They were simply a starting point for Kate to explain why she was at Assateague and what motivated her work. The longhand process, I’ve discovered, is a sort of third-person, in-character, journaling.
My conflicts with electronic writing are three fold: First, my creative energy, that burst that inspires a new story, vanishes when I start writing on an electric document. All of the green and red warnings that highlight misspellings and incorrect punctuation are like blaring sirens, taking me out of the story. Instead of writing, I go back and correct. That delete key is dangerous. It can very quickly disappear a phrase that might not fit in that sentence, but a phrase I may want to use later. Second, as I develop and revise the story, I prefer the kinesthetic, hands-on process of physically writing (educational researchers are looking at the correlations between student success and handwriting but I’ll save that tangent for another time). Instead of scrolling through track changes, highlights, and text colors, I make side notes on paper with the pen, underline an idea I want to develop, remind myself to go back and find a synonym, with a circle and the abbreviation: syn. The handwritten notes make the ideas and revisions stick. Finally, I’m incredibly distracted by the Internet. Turn off the Wi-Fi, a lot of people say. Yet the Internet is a necessary evil because many stories require research. I researched the feral — not wild — horses of Assateague, their history, and the park regulations, but the pull of social media is powerful. It is so easy to go from the National Park Service site to Facebook, to Twitter, and pass another hour without actually finding anything of substance, just scrolling from one site to the next.
Eventually, the story needs to go electronic. For me, this is where revision takes place. I find digital typing is great for the editing phase. I transcribe the paper page word for word into Scrivener. Then, I’ll take a look at chronology, scenes, and plot development. I love the way I can add a new text page or section, and stay organized as I work. With this, I’m able to move scenes around and bridge the story together. In “Hunger, Not Tame,” I played a lot with Kate’s past and how much to include in the story, the back-story burden. It took several revisions to refine the central scene, where her past and present collide.
But after the digital jump, I’m back to paper and pen. I print out the revised draft and I read through the story on paper. I edit, make notes, read it aloud. I mark it up. There, it develops shape and structure. Those changes are made again on the typed draft. Then, there is another printed version for a final read-through. Last minute changes are made, with pen on the paper, and corrected again on the laptop.
Handwritten work takes time. My electronically-inclined friends claim I’m doubling my time on a story. You could have been done by now. But good storytelling shouldn’t be fast or easy, no matter the method. Writing stories is, for me, a hands-on process, an artistic process of creating a world, of creating a person, of creating a story. Writing by hand allows my creative magic to have its space.
BY JIM LANDWEHR
It was writing that brought us together.
In 1986, I moved from my hometown of St. Paul Minnesota to Waukesha, Wisconsin just outside of Milwaukee for a new job. My brother Rob was also living away from home as a student in upstate New York. He and I wrote for a period of time and in one of his letters to me, he included letters from three of his female friends on his dorm floor. He’d told them I had just moved to Waukesha and didn’t really know anyone and that he thought it would brighten my spirits to receive some letters from them.
I don't remember exactly what each of the three had to say. Most of the letters were introductory in nature and seemed like honest attempts to be nice and cure me of my homesick loneliness. They were all away from their families as well, and we were all close in age, so had music, books and college life in common to talk about.
I was, of course, flattered that 3 women would take the time to write, so I wrote each of them individual letters back. Only one wrote back.
For a year and a half.
Donna and I became 20th century pen pals of sorts. This was before the age of e-mail, faxes, texting and Skype. Long distance calls were expensive. Postage for a letter was about a quarter.
So we wrote, and we wrote, and we wrote. Short letters, long letters, letters about the trials of college and a new job, and roommates, and philosophy and religion, family, music, and books. We shared joys, concerns, doubts, beliefs and bad jokes. I sometimes took my writing to silly mediums like writing on napkins or the back of maps, just to keep it interesting. One of the things I recall her liking was my "Random Observations" which covered most subjects under the sun. Near the end of our writing things got a little spicier and flirtatious, neither of us knowing what the other would think, but daring to "go there" nonetheless.
Someone once said that writing is not a bad way to get to know someone – to become friends through writing before pursuing a relationship. I know it was true for me as it was sometimes easier to write things from the heart than it was to say them to someone I hardly knew.
Then one day she called. She said she was thinking about paying a visit and wondered what I'd think? I, of course, said I would love to see her. Both of us knew it would likely change our relationship forever.
And, man, did it ever.
I greeted her at the airport with a single red rose. We went to dinner at the Chancery and out to see the movie "Light Years" at the coolest theatre in Milwaukee, the Oriental. On the way home, "our song" came on the radio in the car, oddly enough, because it wasn't a big top 40 hit. When we got home we stayed up late and talked, and talked.
During the summer of 1989 she did an internship in Brookfield Wisconsin, which enabled us to try dating without five states between us. We were engaged that summer and married on June 16th, 1990. This past year we celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary.
Looking back, it’s hard to say how this courtship would have played out in these modern times. Email, Skype and texting seem so impersonal compared to the anticipation of a letter from across the country. My wife saved every letter I sent her. In a fit of cleaning I threw most of hers out just before we were married. I managed to find a number from her that are post-engagement, but everything else is lost in the physical sense. What remains, are the memories and feelings of that time. I still cherish a handwritten letter from anyone. It is a lost art, one that we pursued with a passion so long ago. It’s my feeling that the emotional outpouring that goes into a letter is felt on the other end in a mystical way that is lost in an electronic medium.
I do know that it worked something special for us. To this day she says that my words were what attracted her to me. There must have been something in hers that drew me to her, as well.
It’s amazing what one simple letter can become.
A writer reflects on his first experience with a journal, which happened to coincide with living away for the first time as well, at the age of 26.Read More