Reflection | PLAY 001: Longhand Jam in the Woods

Play 001: Reflection

A few weeks back I posed myself a challenge: on a trip into Algonquin Park, I would spend my morning writing ritual doing so longhand and compare it to my usual experience writing by keyboard. It was an experiment in response to an (on-going) conversation James and I have about the skill, and it was quite eye-opening—just not in any of the ways I planned.

To be clear—I kind of failed my own experiment. The method broke down almost immediately on day one, as so many plans do upon contact with the enemy. But in the process of failing one experiment, I learned a fair bit about myself and my writing. Scientists reading this may balk at my use of the scientific method (or lack there of? Sidenote: if you’re a scientist, how do you consider you tell stories? Why not let us know in the comments, or better yet, join the community and show us), but it taught me some things through failure I appreciated.

So, to start off, let me address the four hypothesis I stated in my previous article.

Hypothesis #1: My hand can’t keep up with my thoughts.

This was—surprisingly, actually—harder for me to keep track of then I thought. I assumed it’d be a simple matter of counting ticks in the column of my pages every time I felt I was skipping the prose in favour of speed, or anytime I claimed to myself, “I’ll be able to flesh that out later.” But when it came to the moment, well, I guess you could say I was too in the moment to note it.

When I think back to sitting there in the woods, I can’t recall a single time it happened. I made no ticks, no marks to denote it happened. But when I read over the typed results I can clearly see my thoughts were not as verbose as they usually are. (Whereas my “verbose-ness” is usually benefitted by a hatchet taken to my sentences later on, i.e. editing down to “the point”, this lacking left me on the other end of the spectrum: there isn’t enough material on its own; I still need to fill in gaps.) My prose is more choppy, disjointed, and jarring. I’ve created enough to leave myself in a good spot to expand out these thoughts, but there’s a lot more, “There’s not enough to work with”, rather than my usual, “This is good, but is it doing what I want yet? I’ll have to firm that up in the next draft.”

Which is good thing to learn, I suppose. (Feels to me like I’m coming along as a writer.) But what really interests me about this observation was not the results, but the process. I was so “in the moment” while writing that I forgot about marking the very thing I was watching for; I was hitting a moment of creative flow. Which to me is also a good sign for my writing. I’m starting to take myself to a mental space where I am focused on the task at hand—namely, writing. As Sean Connery said,

Hypothesis #2: My hand gets sore while writing.

Fact. Though this hypothesis is more a continuation of the first, the results were as predicted. The longer I wrote for, the more sore my hand became. And when my hand got sore, I can see I started jumping ahead, skipping thoughts, preparing myself to fill in the gaps later. It reminded me, despite my sense of flow, what I was doing, why I was doing it, and brought me to the point where I would say, “That’s a good enough accomplishment for today.”

Still, on the two days I was able to fully commit myself to writing (more on that in a bit), I find I was able to, nonetheless, achieve a fairly comparable word count. The difference was I sat there for a lot longer than I usually do. Which just goes to show the flaws in my method, as I was prepared with an average word count, but not an average time. (And remember, even though I got the word count, much work is needed to complete those sections—just to bring them up to first draft status.)

But, as James mentioned in the comments on my last article, longhand writing is a skill that must be developed. With time and practice I could probably mitigate that pain, or ignore it entirely, improving my speed. (The question remains though—do I want to?)

Hypothesis #3: I have absolutely atrocious penmanship.

Definitely not a hypothesis, but an important variable to the potential success of my longhand writing. This one was a huge surprise: only three words I was unable to decipher. Of these three, two were side by side and I was able to guess within context what they likely were (though they did not look like “push down”); alternatively, if they weren’t that at all it was the work of five seconds to choose “push down” as a viable alternative to whatever I thought at the time.

But to the day end of days I shan’t know what the hell I was going for with, “he(a/u)ry”.

A close up picture of Luke's longhand—what the F#$% is "heury"...?!

Hypothesis #4: The woods are not my home.

Confirmed! The woods did have an affect upon me. They were calm, serene. The call of the loon over the morning, the gentle buzz of water flies on the lake. A thousand different shades of green. It was quite peaceful…

Which was not a boon while trying to write a section entitled, “Chaos at the Summit”.

I was in a very different mindset than the section required, which made the writing more difficult. I tried to picture the swarms of mosquitos out there to get to that properly chaotic place in my mind, but it never quite worked out. (Still, it wasn’t much of a problem as my limited word count meant I didn’t get to the start of the real chaos anyways.)

But I did learn that I am very susceptible to my environment (something I’ve been aware of for quite some time, but this experiment forced me to face). In the first article, I said that on vacation, at conferences, wherever I am, I’ve started to get in the habit of writing every morning; which has been usually true (more on that, too, in a second). But the writing I do away from this computer, in this room, in my home—just isn’t that good. I’ve created a space here where I feel comfortable, where my brain expects to create and when I try to do so away from it—well, my drive falls apart. This is a very good thing to know (as well as something to work on).

Pile of LEGO blocks, unmade. Awaiting life.

There you have it! The (somewhat shoddy, but nonetheless enlightening) results of my time writing in the woods. I have a few more stray observations that didn’t quite fit anywhere else that I’d like to share:

  • Writing in the morning, before the others around you have had coffee, is the quietest.
  • Writing in the evening, when everyone is chatting around the fire, is the most difficult.
  • I like to sleep in. Which has a direct, negative effect on…
  • Those days when one must “get up and immediately break camp.”

I was in the woods for five days, and of those five, only on two was I truly able (read: allowed myself?) to write properly.

Day 1

I tried to write in the evening—which is already out of character, and we know how susceptible I am to environment—around a delightful campfire; which is why I only wrote a quarter my usual word count.

Day 2

I was still under my count, but a lot closer to usual; this was a non-travel day, and I was able to take time after waking up. (Fun fact: this is the day I had all three of my undecipherable words.)

Day 3

Was a travel day, and thus a bust.

Day 4

I was able to reach my average word count (even if I struggled to do it). This day my ideas were the most scattered, all over the place. When I talked about needing to move pieces and fill in gaps to make ready even the first draft, this is the day I think of. It was also the most peaceful day, which I think speaks to my susceptibility to my environment, both positively and negatively.

Day 5

Another travel day, so it was Bust 2: Emerge from the Woods.

Luke’s Takeaway

Despite the experiment’s (inevitable?) failure, I was quite successful in learning a lot about my myself and my desired process, and think I can still safely say, “I don’t prefer writing longhand.” And now I have a much better idea of why I feel that way. (I guess I’m not as analog as I thought.)

But what I’ll take away the most is the revelations surrounding my writing environment, namely, that I’ve conditioned myself to write most effectively at home in front of my computer. (Future experiments may be needed to break down why that is, but I shall leave it for now.)

A laptop setup in the forest.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that I was actually on holidays for two weeks, of which the camping trip was in the second week. Knowing that I had this experiment coming up, I let myself ignore my daily writing; I didn’t write a word during that first week. (Which was a bad idea, as it took me days to get back up to speed; don’t break the habit until it is firmly a habit.) So I may have actually botched the experiment before it ever begun by falling out of this precarious habit I have yet to solidify. But I was also away from home, across the country at a conference / on vacation with my partner—in short, well away from the environment I prefer for writing.

So the big revelation is, “Luke doesn’t like to write on vacation.” But as I said in the comments of James’ latest piece, Facing the Challenge of a Disrupted Schedule, taking a vacation, even from the act of writing, is a good thing (uh, despite what I just said about not breaking habits before you’ve made them). I may not have made a huge dent in my word count on either vacation, however, I came up with a lot of cool ideas for video games, short stories, RPG adventures, Charlotte’s Journey, characters, scenes, and more! Taking some time away from my usual grind gave me some fresh perspective and let me make new connections. (My favourite: a story about a haunted ship on a walking ghost tour inspired a ghost “hunter” video game.)

I made notes of all these ideas that I brought home to my computer, my Place of Writing, and maybe it is only here I can hammer letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into stories, but it’s nice to know that out in the wide world I still am a writer, committed to my process. I’m just working on a different part of it—idea generation and percolation, two parts of the process just as important to a writer/creator, undeniably essential to the creation of stories.

(Hmm, perhaps there’s something in that for the Right Pillar…)

If you have an idea for an experiment, a challenge, or some form of Play, set it up for the Community in the Central Pillar, and have at it! Adventures in Storytelling is about doing, after all, and doing together.

2 thoughts on “Reflection | PLAY 001: Longhand Jam in the Woods”

  1. Two important things to consider on the whole ‘hitting your word count’ thing:

    1. You’ve phrased your article to suggest that the less-than-first-draft quality writing you were doing is in some way a negative. There were gaps and holes that needed filling in. Fair enough, but you still hit your average word count. Would it not then follow that you were technically *more* productive, since you generated more story, albeit in a less-complete format? Really, what’s one more outline stage at this point 😉

    2. If you were in the moment when writing, why is your prose different? Can you blame the pen and paper alone? Or was it something larger, the removal from home or the break in routine, as the rest of this article seems to suggest? I mean, we’ll argue about this ’till the end of time, so I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I have to wonder how much of that choppiness would have turned up if it wasn’t expected to, if y’know what I mean.

    Ultimately, what is important is simply that you’re comfortable and able to write. The reason I went analogue is because I could not find any sort of flow with a keyboard under my fingers. The same is not true for you – you may prefer a keyboard, but you can still use a pen a paper and be so in the moment that you drop out of the real world and into your work… and that’s pretty neat!

    Also, your mystery word is “hurry”

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