Longhand or computer? is one of the questions we pose to the guests in our Quickfire Questions series, and when I answered the interview myself last year, I didn't hesitate to say computer.
I envy those who are able to answer longhand, because I love the idea of writing uninhibited first drafts with crossings-out and squashed-in extras in the margins. It would give me a sense of freedom, as well as a link to writers throughout history who have used the same basic tools and honed their craft without the help of cut 'n' paste and find 'n' replace.
For research notes and some of my non-fiction stuff, I use an unlined Moleskine and a fountain pen with purple ink, which probably makes me sound like one of those writers who say in interviews that they regularly send off for a certain kind of pencil from a market stall in Ulaanbaatar otherwise they simply can't channel the muse, dahling. When writing longhand notes, I find that the information embeds itself more deeply in my mind, I can recall it with clarity and continue to process it while I'm engaged in non-writing activities. I would like to do this for fiction too – so why don't I?
Well, it all goes back to my early teenage years, when I first realised that writing was the one thing I really wanted to do. I tried to keep a diary, mainly because Judy Blume characters did, but this soon became a source of hilarity to my family. No matter where I hid my journal, I became paranoid that they were rummaging through my stuff, ready to read it out in a silly voice. The daily entries dwindled to a few inane comments about what I'd had for dinner, and soon fizzled out altogether.
I was even more secretive about fiction, because if anyone found my stories – or on the rare occasions I dared show anyone – they just did not seem to grasp that I had made it up. The heroine must obviously be me, and if another character happened to be a bloke, then Oooooh, I must have a boyfriend, ha ha ha! An admittedly dire historical story with a Saxon prince anti-hero resulted in my mum joking that I secretly wanted to kill my dad.
OK, so this is not a big deal – the lame teasing of an awkward and oversensitive kid is hardly anything new, but for years I felt that everything I wrote was public property and therefore had to hit the page perfectly formed. Even when I got a computer and could password it up to the eyeballs, I retained the belief that someone was looking over my shoulder and would laugh if I wrote about anything beyond my own limited experiences.
Years passed and I eventually got a grip and started writing what I wanted to write, discovering the fun of first drafts, where it's OK to churn out crap (or rather, what appears to be crap but often ends up better than an agonised-over sentence.) I can now write articles and blog posts and send them out into the world on pretty much the first take. I can show my non-fiction work to anyone without feeling remotely hurt if they suggest improvements.
Fiction, however, still feels like something to be kept secret until I'm really happy with it. Though I no longer bother putting passwords on my files or closing them down every time I move more than a metre from the screen, it would be a big step to choose the vulnerability of writing longhand on paper that could fall into anyone's hands. Writing on the computer is – for now – a way of giving my work the safety that enables it to go beyond being safe.