Alison Nastasi recently posted a great article on Flavorwire entitled “The Writing Tools of 20 Famous Authors.” Critics have long had a disproportionate fascination with Jack Kerouac’s implementation of the typewriter, and I commend Nastasi for noting Kerouac’s use of notebooks.
A Columbia friend of Kerouac’s used to always carry along a little notebook, and Kerouac picked up the practice from him. In fact, his notebooks became so important to him that one of his girlfriends accused him of caring more about taking notes on what was happening around him than actually living life. When I interviewed Kerouac’s Lowell friend Billy Koumantzelis, he mused that Kerouac was always jotting down notes in his hometown bars. As he told me this, the intonation suggested he thought Kerouac was a bit eccentric in his writing habit. In Burning Furiously Beautiful, Paul and I go into more detail about Kerouac’s use of notebooks because it’s an important aspect of his development as a writer.
Truman Capote famously quipped that Kerouac was merely typing, and indeed typewriters are important to understanding Kerouac’s editorial process. His father was a printer so Kerouac grew up accustomed to printing technologies and was a masterful typist. His L.C. Smith and Underwood typewriters allowed him to spill out a mad rush of words, capturing the speed of the highway. These words and ideas, however, were culled from his notebooks.
It’s important for writers to find the right tools for them. Some authors commit their best works directly into their laptops. They are used to composing emails, and typing on the computer is more natural than writing longhand. Other writers, however, find that starting their first draft in a Word document only results in stilted text, as they are too quick to rely on shorthand, thanks to all the time they spend on Twitter. For many writers, a combination of different media work best, as they find the ease of cutting and pasting helpful to their editing process once they’ve gotten a first draft done in a notebook.
For me, personally, it depends on what type of writing I’m doing. If I’m writing a blog post, I indefinitely type it directly into the computer. Blogging isn’t my best writing. I care more about the content than the style when I blog.
If I’m writing research-heavy nonfiction, even then I will often write the majority of it on the computer, as I find it helpful to be able to keep my notes together and play with the placement of quotes. If I hit a wall, I’ll print out the work and mark it up with pen.
For memoir writing, though, I enjoy writing with ink in a notebook or even just a loose-leaf piece of paper. It feels more intimate to me, like I’m writing in my diary or writing a letter to a friend. I do a lot of my editing even with paper and pen.
When I was a teenager, I sometimes wrote on an electric typewriter. I think there was a part of me that had romantic literary notions associated with typewriters. I loved the click-clack of the keys. As an adult, I still see the value of writing on a typewriter. It is too easy to hit the delete key and to play with the order of paragraphs on the computer when starting a draft. Good drafts are often the ones where we don’t censor ourselves, where we commit words to the paper for a good long while before we look at them again and decide what stays and what goes.
Every writer needs to find what works best for them. Sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. Sometimes it helps to shake up the routine every once in a while.
What are your favorite writing tools?
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