Got a book to write, or any sort of new writing project for that matter, but don’t know how to get started? As a preliminary step, I recommend reading Lewis H. Lapham’s short essay in AARP The Magazine (February/March 2019). Mr. Lapham is a former editor of Harper’s Magazine, the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, an author of numerous books, and, in this essay, a distinguished elder offering sage advice about basic principles of writing.
Pay no attention to the cheesy promotional title attached at the top: “Lewis Lapham Tells You How to Write a Book.” He does no such thing. What he actually does is far better. He teaches you how to fish: bait the writing hook, get the hook in the water, learn the patience of the practice, and come to love that practice – necessary steps in the development of your writing project.
Twice in the course of his discussion, Lapham mentions the benefits of using pen and paper for initial writing and regular practice. For those of you raised on computers and cell phones, this might seem akin to extolling the virtues of washing your clothes by hand in a nearby creek. The idea here is not subtraction of modern convenience (impossible, in any case, if you want to publish), but rather re-addition of the best tools available. Good news: these tools can be purchased for next to nothing.
This is not to say that you can’t generate pages of consistently fresh imagery while staring at your laptop screen with your fingers tapping freely on the keys. Certainly such miracles do occur. It seems to me, however, that relying on that method for all writing puts the writer at a practical and tactile disadvantage, especially for first drafts.
As Lapham puts it: “The shaping of words on paper brings them to life in the sound of a voice.” There is something about hand-crafting characters on a page with a pen that allows the creative expression to stay more closely connected to the body, to its voice, perhaps even to the spirit generating the resonance of that voice.
Think of what your computer’s writing program is called: a word processor. So formal sounding, so industrial. The computer is an amazing tool for treating, arranging, adapting, adjusting, perfecting – for processing – your words. But for generating them, there’s nothing like the old-school approach.