Monday, August 16, 2010

Inside the Writer's Notebook

Ernest Hemingway did it.  Marcel Proust did it.  And now I've done it.

The three of us, along with countless others, spent a goodly chunk of our days sitting in a sidewalk cafe handwriting lines and lines of text, both tight and sloppy, drinking cups of bitter coffee, blocking out the babble of those around us as the sun soaked into our shoulders and we sharpened our focus, our imaginations, and our pencils.  Hemingway had his Closerie des Lilas, Proust had his Brasserie Lipp, I had my Starbucks in Helena, Montana.

The state's capitol city is a far cry from Paris and Prospect Avenue is no Left Bank, but if I concentrated really hard, I could conjure up my own miniature "moveable feast" as I brainstormed some notes for Fobbit.  I was on a business trip to Helena and was making good use of my free time between attending sessions of the legislative interim committees.  I hunched over the metal table, the lattice-work pattern digging into my elbows, and held my pen with a death-choke grip.  My earbuds were drilled into my head and the "Classics and Soundtracks" playlist was dialed up on the iPod: Mozart and Ennio Morricone filled my mind in equal measure, blocking out the inane romantic cooings of a young tattooed couple at the next table and the static-hiss of traffic passing five feet away.

You should know that this is not normal behavior for me.  I write in solitude and always on a laptop computer.  My justifications:
• I hate the sight of my handwriting
• I get distracted by my aching fingers
• I need the safety net of all the words in my novel
On this day, however, I had no choice because my beloved HP Pavilion had caught a Trojan Horse virus and was in the shop for three days.  I spent the first two of those days bemoaning the fact that I couldn't get any work done on the novel.  I'd planned to make good headway during the five days I was in Helena, but those ambitions collapsed like a deck of cards in the wind when my computer went on the fritz.  Oh me, oh my, whatever will I do now? I moaned, wringing my hands.

Then I used one of those hands to reach up and slap myself.  Come back to reality, you lazy son of bitch.  You've got a pen, you've got a notebook, you've got a couple of dollars left on that Starbucks gift card.  Do the math.

And so I spent a morning on the left bank of Prospect Avenue, drinking coffee and writing until my fingers cramped into a grotesque claw.  I started slowly--at the top of the page, a character description: “Vaughn Strong, 46 years old, West Point grad...”--but then started to pick up speed and steam. Before I knew it, an hour had passed and I had four full pages of notes about Lt. Col. Vaughn Strong. When the computer tech called to say my computer was ready to be picked up, I was almost melancholy to leave behind the black notebook.  I've since returned to the notebook to work out another character's backstory and the results were pretty satisfying, so maybe there's something to this handwriting thing after all.

Here are scans of the pages from my Starbucks session last month.  This is pure brainflow--unedited, pockmarked with things I need to fact-check, and, thanks to my terrible penmanship, hard to read in places.  I have no idea what (if any) of this will make it into the final manuscript.  If nothing else, they're interesting artifacts from the day I got my Hemingway on.


  1. I really like this -- I love seeing people's handwritten notes. I could know you for years, David, and I'd never know what your writing looked like. There's something very personal about it that I appreciate -- thanks for giving us a look.

  2. Thanks, Lisa.
    I debated for more than a week whether or not to post these scans. As you say, it's a very personal thing and, I felt, this was probably the truest blog post I've done yet. My handwriting is one of the physical features I hate most about myself (along with my middle-age weight gain and poor posture). But I decided to take the plunge to show readers a little bit of what the writing process is like.
    Next up: audio .wav files of my squeaking desk chair and the somewhat muted tapping of forefinger against forehead.