This is no. 39 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
This sounds made up, but in my high school you could substitute a typing class for gym. As a bookish, lazy teenager, this was perfect for me. The class was called Fundamentals of Keyboarding, and we spent all semester doing home-key practices and speed drills. Near the end of each session the teacher would hand us some random page of text—it might be instructions for building a birdhouse or a page of a novel—and it was our job to type it, print it, and staple it to the original. I wasn’t great at a lot of things in high school, but I turned out to be a terrifically fast typist who rarely made mistakes; I loved holding the papers up to the light, seeing my words perfectly overlap with those on the handout.
As an exercise in my first fiction workshop, the professor asked us to type a short story by our favorite writer. The idea was to feel the words come through our fingers, to pound out the rhythm of those admirable sentences ourselves. I still find typing immensely satisfying—it’s relaxing, almost a form of meditation. I like the mechanics of it, the way each letter translates to a physical movement, to a clicking sound, to a shape on the screen. I also have terrible handwriting. It’s barely legible and embarrassing, like someone has dared me to use my non-dominant hand.
When I’m writing fiction, I’m typing on my laptop into a document, using the features meant to make things easy: cut, copy and paste, backspace. It’s convenient, it’s fast, and it’s the preferred method for most of the writers I know. I do a lot of pre-work in my head, by sound, so by the time I sit down to write, I have at least a few sentences ready. In the completely new sections, I’ll get into a flow, typing as fast as I can think, then doubling back and reading each sentence aloud. I’m constantly making changes as I go: correcting errors, substituting or cutting words, shifting whole sections around on the page.
But every once in a while I’ll get stuck, hung up on some fundamental, propulsive element of the story, like I’ve reached the end of the thread. Maybe I’m insecure about what comes next, paralyzed by doubt. Or maybe there’s a problem with a sentence I can’t work out on the screen, something tangled about the rhythm or syntax. As much as I hate it, the best thing I can do in this situation is pull the problem out of the computer and write it down.
All the usual disadvantages of writing in longhand become advantages: It’s slow, it requires more mechanical effort, the words must come in order with no easy erasures. I also have rules for myself: no crossing things out or moving/inserting words. If what I’ve written is wrong, I have to skip a line and write it again. If I realize halfway through a paragraph that a sentence belongs at some earlier point, I start the whole section over. When I’m writing things down, I press too hard and my hand cramps, so I have to take frequent breaks. This slow-building repetition lets me see the work differently. Writing in longhand is also uniquely tactile—there’s the feeling of the pen in my grip, my hand drifting across the page. I’m forcing my brain and body to connect with the story in a new way.
Once I solve the problem, I’m eager to open the document on my computer. I’ll type in the revised section and move on, fast at the keyboard, back to the easy rhythm and familiar feel, until, inevitably, I come to the next snag.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.