Writing by Hand with Michael Parker

onthehouseWriting is a physical act. And for author Michael Parker, it is an act done by hand. Pen and paper.

Michael’s latest novel is All I Have in This World, which he wrote, of course, by hand: “I wrote it in Mead composition notebooks—one for Marcus and one for Maria—and then, when I added the car scenes, I wrote those on legal pad.  Then I rewrote many of the scenes by hand before I typed it up.

“I did not write a second full draft by hand. But it’s hard to tell, because when I would print it out I would often think it wasn’t working (the prose, I mean—or the action, which is the same for me) and I would rewrite on a legal pad.”

Michael explains the writing process and the beauty of putting words on paper for us today…

parkerStaining the Page

I often tell my students that I am “B.C,” by which I mean Before Computers, not Before Christ, though after my 25 years in the classroom, it is not a stretch for them to believe I mean the latter.  Before there were computers there were, of course, typewriters. I took Typing I in high school and was terrible in that class, so bad that I misspelled my name daily. I went by Mike, not Michael, back then, and the teacher, calling the roll, asked if “Mide Parker” was present.

I knew lots of writers who “composed” their stories on the typewriter. But I was never one of them, because a typewriter is (was? they seem to be extinct except in the hands of the same kids who treasure vinyl) a machine, and I am no good at machines. I could not compose anything at the typewriter because I would not be a composer in the Mozart or Hank Williams sense of the word. I would have been just a typist, and a very bad one at that.

The habit of writing by hand is no longer a habit, but a deliberate choice. I write by ear—I need for my sentences to sound like the thing they are describing. And I want the reader to understand, through my careful calibration of syntax and sentence length and punctuation, that there is method in the music. The writer William Gass wrote that he “wanted the reader’s mouth to move as if reading were being in that moment mastered, and the breath were full of chewable food…” I love this quote for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the notion of art as sustenance. But I love it primarily because it expresses, better than I can, the way I want my sentences read. And here is the thing: I can only make my sentences sound the way I want them to if I am pushing a pen along a blue line of yellow legal pad.  I have tried, once or twice, to type directly into a Word document, but what appeared on the screen lacked swing.  So it did not mean a thing.

michael parker writing

A draft of Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World – in Michael’s own handwriting.

The tactile feel of pen against paper, the page slowly stained with words, the cross-outs, the circled phrases with arrows sending them to some other part of the paragraph or page—this is the only way I know to make the sentence sing. When I suggest to my students that they try it, many of them claim that they think too fast to write by hand, that they would lose half or more of what they had to say.  Think slower, I often say, for more than half of what we think we have to say will eventually be lost in revision. If I am in a grumpier mood, I say, “Just because you think it doesn’t make it true.”

If the physical book disappears, if the Kindles and Nooks and tablets take over, will there still be paper available to stain with a Uniball Roller? Thank goodness the law requires your signature on things, for if they took my pen and paper from me, if I had to make my sentences staring at a boxy pixilated screen, I believe I might have to get a job doing what I told my mother, at age four, I wanted to be when I grew up:  a garbage man.

Michael Parker is currently handwriting his next project.

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