Like a lot of people who write I own way too many notebooks. I have to stop myself from starting more than I can handle. At the moment, I have three on the go, which is a lot, but I tell myself that they are all for different forms of writing, or rather, for different methods and moods of writing.
One of them is my personal diary in which I record (with less and less gusto, recently) my gripes and complaints about the world, my insecurities, the moments when paranoid thoughts get the best of me. My diary is a hardback A5 notebook, a Leuchtturm1917 in fact, and despite its bright turquoise cover it has a certain amount of gravitas – after all, it has thick pages and a spine.
Another notebook I have on the go is a slim, cheap, bendy one that’s supposed to fit into the pockets of my coat when I go for a walk and open flat on a desk and generally be a lot more carefree and unfussy than my diary. On the inside cover it says in bright green marker “Random Thoughts / Walking Notebook 2016”, to remind myself that this notebook might as well be called “Miscellaneous”.
The third notebook is one I haven’t used in almost a month. It’s a Decomposition Book, with a lovely Under-the-Sea themed cover, and this notebook is a mess: I used about 7 different types of writing utensils in several colours in it, my handwriting in this notebook is atrocious, and if there is an overall theme I can recognise it’s probably something like, I don’t know, personal growth or attempts at organising psychological chaos. So, somewhat related to what goes on in the turquoise diary, except with an attempt to follow certain pre-established methods, such as the CBT method of writing out a difficult thought, identifying the distortion within it, and correcting the thought into something more likely to be true. This is done in a three-column table: one column for the thought, one for the distortion, one for the correction.
I should say the notebook didn’t start out as a CBT notebook, nor has it stayed one. It started out as a kind of Braindrain book in which I simply write out, stream of consciousness style, my thoughts as they occur, which tend to be overwhelmingly related to not wanting to write, not knowing what to write, why to write, and generally to a feeling of worthlessness. It’s captivating stuff, really. But I suppose those thoughts need somewhere to go. One thing the writing community, be it inside or outside of academia, continuously tells you is ‘write past your inner critic’, meaning write out that tedious, recurring inner voice telling you that writing is a bad idea right now because you have nothing to say and you will never be good enough. The thought behind this is that you will eventually tire of beating yourself up in writing and write something else simply because you now can – you are, after all, already writing – and will thus be able to say something more than your inner critic wanted you to.
However, after a few dozen pages of paragraphs all starting with “I don’t want to write but here I am writing…” or “I don’t have anything to say I feel like such an idiot trying…” I gave up on this form of writing and started the CBT tables instead. These tables try to deal with the issues underlying that fear of writing, and it’s all very earnest and clumsy, and at times almost contrived.
Then I was told that the Braindrain method can help with things other than just writing: it can get rid of unnecessary thoughts or anxieties before bed or just upon waking up, to free the mind so that it may focus on other things. I was told the following: “Think of the overly critical and anxious part of your mind as a child demanding attention. Just telling it to shut up won’t make it go away. You have to hear it out, give it a little bit of time to voice its concerns, and then it will leave you alone.”Sure, why not. I started filling the notebook with long rambling wordblocks again, often about an hour before bed, sometimes in the morning as well. I started out in a purple pen, then moved on to a lime green one; my theory was that if I chose a colour that didn’t contrast so much with the off-white of the page, I would feel less self-conscious about what I was writing because I couldn’t see it that well.
Ultimately, however, I am coming to terms with this notebook’s services being suspended, if not terminated. I’ve filled it only halfway, which I feel somewhat guilty about, and which is the main reason it still sits on my desk. But I don’t get much joy out of the prospect of writing into it, and because joy is precisely the feeling I’m trying to reconnect with writing, I guess it’ll have to go.
Other notebook-like items are my daily planner, which contains my to-do lists and appointments in a tick-box format, and a doodling notebook, an A4 blank Moleskine in which I doodle and draw mainly because it relaxes me and also because of an ongoing obsession with this guy (Peter Deligdisch) on youtube: I love drawing while watching his videos and listening to his voice-over rambles; it relaxes the part of my mind that gets caught up in language and verbal expression, that feels compelled to try and put things into words (even as it is too tired not to fail). Doodling opens up those cramped parts of my mind, lets some air in, ‘breathes into the in-between spaces’ as I’ve heard some yoga teachers say. It is good practice, and that makes the doodle-Moleskine a good notebook.
I am deliberately not talking about my laptop, which I obviously also use to write, because I want to focus on a writing at a different speed. Handwriting seems a lot closer to a comfortable speed for my mind. Typing is more satisfying in the moment because it’s fast and allows me to chase after my thoughts and get the words out there with a minimal amount of effort, but handwriting does something else: it adapts to my breathing, is more relaxed, or rather, it forces me to relax.
Often, as I start handwriting, my thoughts are jumbled, my mind impatient with the hand that takes too long to get the words on paper. Several thoughts occur at once and I get panicked, worried I might not be able to follow all of them in time before they vanish or multiply into so many that my memory can’t keep up. But therein lies the therapeutic power of handwriting, for me at least. I have to start making a choice.
If I write slowly, I can only really follow one thought at a time, which means I have to learn to let go of all the other thoughts that pop up in my overactive mind. As I start choosing one line of thought over the others, I feel uneasy at first, but then I start to settle into my commitment. I write down my thought, and the one that follows it, then the one after it. Instead of a restless rhizome my train of thought settles back into a series of lines branching off into other lines, and I follow only the line I’ve chosen. Whatever comes up and sinks back into the darkness before I’ve had a chance to write it down doesn’t matter. It stops being stressful after a while. This is why I try to do the writing I do for psychological recovery by hand.
However, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one who has let this put them off handwriting, but I have noticed recently how tense I can get when writing with a pen in my hand. It’s hard to say where the tension starts, if it’s caused by physical discomfort or by psychological pressure. Either way, I find that I almost curl up and in on myself when writing in my notebooks, that I grip my pen tightly, that I get sharp tension in my neck, and that parts of my hand start hurting, especially the tip of my middle finger (the knuckle my pen rests on) and the muscle around my thumb. Once this tension sets in, I have to stop writing every few minutes to shake my hand and give it a rest – not great for keeping the creative flow going. Not great, either, for feeling like a writer when the main movement associated with your craft is causing you cramps, in the same way it’s not fun to feel weak and be reminded of your own mortality at the gym, especially if you thought you were in pretty good shape to begin with.
So after I stopped beating myself up for not ‘practicing’ enough or for ruining my own ability to write by hand – basically after I stopped making it about myself – I started looking up solutions to this problem online. I came across a number of articles that suggested the main problem has little to do with practice or with not being used to hold a pen. What causes the cramps has several causes, some of them physical, some psychological, and, as some of the articles suggest, they might be linked. The physical causes are 1. grip, and 2. source of movement.
The grip is an easy one: most people grip their pen way, way too tightly. This can be because they use the wrong kind of pen (anything that doesn’t draw an easy line isn’t going to do you any favours, nor are pencils, really), or because they have learned to ‘draw’ their letters rather than write them. This article in particular explains the difference between the two very well, and offers some advice on how to change. It also discusses cause Nr. 2: the source of the writing movement. Most people don’t use the right muscles when they write.
As you’ve probably surmised, the “right muscles” are not those in the fingers. You must use the shoulder-girdle and forearm muscles. This muscle group is capable of much more intricate action than you think and tires much less easily than fingers, besides giving a smooth, clean, sweeping look to the finished writing. Though it seems paradoxical, since we’re accustomed to thinking of small muscles having better control, the shoulder-girdle group, once trained, does the job better.
From the PaperPenalia article on Tips for Improving your Handwriting
So I spent this morning trying to write holding my pen very gently and wrist very still, making sure any movement came from my arm and shoulder. It relieved any pain or fatigue in my hand, sure, but it also felt odd, like learning to write all over again. I felt oddly insecure about my writing, and had to focus on shaping my letters in the right way – several times, I caught myself writing an L instead of an S, or a T instead of a K, for no apparent reason. My handwriting became larger, more slanted, airier, but I also felt less in control of what I was writing. Thoughts seemed to flow more easily, sure, but I also felt less in control of myself. The tight grip I was used to having on my pen seems to relate to the same impulse that causes me to clench my jaw at night (but this is an entirely new post…), a fear of letting go, a fear that if I do let go things will fall apart.
That small existential meltdown aside, I have my work cut out of myself: practice writing from the shoulder, with a loose grip, good posture (ideally sitting upright, or even with my notebook on a slanted surface). So much physical wellbeing plays into the writing life: most of my teachers on my Creative Writing degree told me to take care of my back and invest in a good chair, which I still haven’t done.
And now, even typing has exhausted me. This is a lot of loosely connected material, and a compelling reason why I should write smaller things more regularly instead of whatever this is. Less a post than a disjointed mess, all over the place. Oh well. It takes some chaos, some shapeless extravagance, to start anything. A mound of clay for a small figurine and many failed attempts. Or something. And whoever reads it gets thanks for their patience.