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Somebody asked me a couple of days ago whether I write by hand or on the computer (you can see my answer at http://www.lemontastic.com, the site of my recent children’s novel, ‘Bob and the Alien Escapade’ – never pass up the chance for a quick plug…!). It was only in answering the question that I realised that despite writing fiction and non-fiction mostly on the computer, I always, always write poetry by hand. Even if the poem requires some kind of internet research, I will sit next to the computer, notebook on my knee, check any necessary facts on screen and then write by hand. And I’m ridiculously fussy about the type of notebook I use – it must always be large (A4 ideally), with thick white pages and no constraining lines.

So this got me wondering about what other poets do. Is it just me or do other perfectly computer-literate people also write their poetry long-hand?

And perhaps more interestingly, why is this? It’s a curious thing, this poetry writing. By its nature, it’s often an introspective act, more personal certainly than writing a factual book, and perhaps the feel and permanence of pen on paper reinforces its integrity and strength. But if so, then what about fiction? Novels are intensely personal too.

Romance aside, the reason could of course be more practical, due to the length of most poems. After all, when you’re dealing with edits, deletions, insertions, scribbling outs and so on, it’s more manageable if the work is only a page or two long and rewriting isn’t particularly time-consuming or arduous.

For me, I think it’s a combination of the two things. I would certainly find it difficult to write a whole novel by hand, but my fiction planning and notes are always done this way. With poetry, the act of writing is, for me, somehow part of the process, and my thoughts, crossings-out and the lines I choose not to include are as important to me as the finished verse. In fact, I always keep my original versions and never quite obliterate the words I’ve left by the wayside – they’re part of the story too.

I’d be really interested to hear how any other poets work. Do you write by hand, on the computer, or a combination of the two? And if so, why?

8 thoughts on “A practical question for poets

  1. I have never been comfortable with the sight of my handwriting. I have poor penmanship and a tendency to make lots of mistakes. So, within two lines of starting to write on paper, I usually had something that looked ugly to the eye: cramped irregular scrawl and some crossing out (even if I was just copying).

    Word processors came to me as a liberation and a blessing. Being a scientist, I was familiar with computers and trusted them as much as they deserved trust. And, written with WordStar, my words no longer offended the eye. At last I could concentrate on what I was trying to say and ignore the mechanics of getting it onto paper.

    • Hi Robin, and thanks for the thoughtful comment! I guess I’ve learnt to live with crossings out and messy notebooks – my handwriting isn’t too bad, but I also make a lot of mistakes!

      Like you, I love the fact that with a computer, you can concentrate on saying exactly what you mean without having the distraction of looking at your own mistakes. I’m a fast typist and I write almost everything on my wonderful iMac, which I would hate to be without.

      But for some reason (and I recognise that I might be alone in thinking this!), poetry seems different and the mistakes are, to me, part of the picture (a bit like when a painter works in oils and goes over the top of a mistake, I suppose – the mistake is still there, a living part of the art). If I wrote a poem on the computer, I would rather feel as though part of it had been lost with the use of the backspace key!

      As well as being an author and a scientist, are you also a poet, Robin?

      • Because I love poetry so much, and respect the poets, I’m not comfortable with calling myself a poet. However, I have written some fragments of an intended novel. As part of the novel I wrote some short poems, each intended to capture the mood at a particular point of the story. I think they are among the better fragments of my novel, but they couldn’t stand on their own dactyls.

        I agree, though, that editing things too quickly, and irrevocably, risk losing something. It may be that after cutting something out in the fourth draft you may find a need to put it back in when you’re doing the seventeenth draft. So writing on paper is useful as a way of preserving several drafts on one sheet. It’s a sort of auto-palimpsest!

        (Of course the real problem is that I need to grow up and stop thinking like a ten-year old, terrified of the teacher looking over his shoulder. But that problem will take a lifetime to resolve.)

      • If I’m removing anything longer than three or four paragraphs in a novel I’m writing, I tend to cut and paste it into a ‘deleted scenes’ file, just in case. And occasionally some of these scenes find their way back into the book later on.

        With poetry, I couldn’t cut and paste – a simple line through things means that I can still see the words if I want to and they still belong on the page with the rest of the poem. In this way, each page somehow represents my thoughts and feelings at the time of writing. Like a photograph.

        Palimpsest – haven’t heard that word for years! As for growing up, I think that’s something that the best writers and the best scientists have a natural aversion to – maintaining childlike curiosity and not being too averse to risks is essential if you are to make a good go of it!

        I’ll be interested to see some of your poetry one day…

  2. I’m completely with you on this one – novels and plays I tend to type but poetry is almost always done in a notebook. I also like being able to scribble scraps of poems when I’m not by my laptop and I actually love how messy and unvarnished they look – it feels more personal somehow.

    • Thanks for the comment – I’m glad it’s not just me who writes poetry by hand and loves the mistakes! I agree about the portability thing too – the ability to jot down a poem or just a few words, no matter where you are, is important and stops so many ideas from being forgotten. I visited your blog, btw and will be following along!

  3. I “create” in both mediums – often mixing the two. Much of the hard graft is completed in my head so far as concept, (in)formal structure, vocabulary etc goes, so I often sit at the keyboard and type out a (better than, because the drafting process has already started as a mental process) first draft, but I tend to hand edit print-outs when I revise, retyping changes in a new version.

    Like you, though I will often draft in A3 sized sketchpads (lots of space to exercise in) – here the work is often hand-written and revised on the same or facing page, and I include sketches and supplementary material. When I get round to typing this up, the hard copy is often pasted in and then revised.

    I save versions as I both learn from and am entertained by the process of editing – the buffing and shining process as it were. I will sometimes keep notes of the thinking process – some of these I have put on my blog.

  4. Hello Martin – thanks for visiting the site and for your really interesting comment. In some of my older notebooks, I have also created some work on the computer, printed it out, stuck it in and then revised it within the notebook, but I very rarely do this now. Instead, I work on (and around) a poem in a large notebook – like you, adding sketches and so on where necessary – and then once the page is full or I feel as though I’ve got somewhere, I will write out the poem so far on the next page and continue working on it there. I carry on doing this until the poem is finished, and then write up the complete verse on a new page. In this way, I retain the ‘story’ of the poem from start to finish, all in one place.

    It’s interesting that you’ve put notes of your thinking process onto your blog. It wonder whether, if enough people’s poetry notebooks/computer drafts/thinking were collated in one place, there would be any interesting patterns or similarities to note.

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