The Liberation and Consternation of Writing a Whole Book with Paper and Pen
In Which Jeff Gordinier Writes an Essay on the Train
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.”
I was going to write this essay on a flight from Detroit to New York, but I had to abandon that idea. I got stuck in a middle seat, and the seats on Spirit Airlines appear to have been designed for human beings the size of chipmunks, and the guiding (ahem) spirit of Spirit Airlines hinges on making sure that passengers pay attention to “amusing” announcements for half the flight. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t even move my arms.
So, instead, I am writing this essay on a train that’s rolling alongside the Hudson River. Moving trains are the best place to write by hand, especially when you manage to secure a window seat in that sanctuary of bliss known as the quiet car. (People are forbidden to babble in the quiet car. The conductors enforce this rule. When a noisy passenger gets reprimanded in the quiet car—or, better yet, ejected from it—a silent current of schadenfreude passes between those of us who prefer to travel in a soundless cocoon.)
At the moment things seem to be going smoothly here on the Metro-North express into Manhattan, and I remember the feeling from past trips. It’s a feeling that I tapped into, now and then, with occasional waves of relief, when I was writing my new book, Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World.
That’s because I wrote probably 75 percent of Hungry in longhand, on planes and trains, in public libraries and cocktail bars. To finish the manuscript (no mean feat with four children in the house, two of them infants and two of them teenagers) I carried around equipment similar to the gear I have with me now on the train: a cheap Wexford wide-ruled notebook from somewhere chic like Staples or Walgreens, and a pen bestowed upon me by some nice person at the New Orleans tourism board.
The ink in this pen has a commendably viscous flow—black and fluid as a stream at night. I wish you could see it.
What you do see, instead, is a tightened, polished version of these scrawls after I have typed them into my laptop days later. That’s how I do revisions. I improvise via pen and paper first (oops, the train just swerved with a sharp thump in the Bronx and I almost spilled my cold brew on the notebook), and then I attempt to remove all of the embarrassing and repetitive stuff when I convert these lines into paragraphs on my MacBook Air.Life pulls you away from writing, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, and when you return to it you can’t remember where the writing was supposed to go.
Are you still reading? I hope so. That’s the point—to keep the reader whisking along as if she’s riding a waterslide. The novelist DeLauné Michel, a friend of mine, once told me something about a scientific study that said that our cognitive outpouring tends to be more continuous—less choppy, more musical—when we write by hand. Normally I would go Google that study, and tell you details about it, but I have my phone off.
And that’s the other point. I wrote the bulk of Hungry in longhand—and I have written a lot of my magazine pieces the same way—because I have to admit that I am a hopeless quivering addict when it comes to social media. If I kept my phone on, I would not write this essay. (Yes, I’m still on the train, by the way. This ride has been productive.) I would text my friends. I would check Instagram and Facebook about 400 times. I would drown in torrents of trivia.
I would procrastinate with the furious intensity of a worker ant, but I would accomplish nothing. People seem confused when I tell them that I produced a book by hand— “but how?! and why?!” asked my friend Adam—whereas the truth is that it was the only way I could ever bank on finishing it. Limit me to nothing but a pen and a notepad, and I will generate thousands of words of copy. Allow the carnival of 21st-century distraction to sneak into my sightlines, and all is lost—I will cannibalize the small portion of time that I’ve been granted.
Ah, the train is pulling into Grand Central now. I’ll pick this up in a few hours and we’ll talk about the challenges of continuity.
So here’s the catch. I am returning to this essay about ten days later. Competing duties and deadlines barged in soon after my longhand sprint in the pod of the quiet car, so I stuffed the notebook into a tote bag and forgot about it for a while. I lost the thread. That thread is as difficult to see, with my 52-year-old eyes, as an actual thread.
Now I need to find it and propel the essay back into motion. That’s a challenge that all writers face, no matter what methods they use. Life pulls you away from writing, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, and when you return to it you can’t remember where the writing was supposed to go.
But it’s particularly challenging when you scribble everything in a notebook with a pen, because splotches of ink on paper don’t come with all of the helpful signposts that we become accustomed to when we write with the aid of contemporary technology.That’s the primary benefit of longhand, for me: with nothing to divert it, my right hand stays busy.
I could not, for instance, click to find out a word count when I was writing Hungry in my notebooks. (My wife was terrified that I would lose the notebooks the way I am always losing umbrellas and sunglasses, and she was right to worry. I had a couple of close calls involving misplaced tote bags in airports.) I just kept writing and writing until I had filled up a notebook, and then I would crack open a fresh one. I travel around constantly for Esquire, scouting out prospects for our annual Best New Restaurants list, so the notebooks came along with me in my backpack and I relentlessly sought out the serenity of hotel rooms and wine bars where I might secure a solid hour or two of focused page-filling.
I later learned (during the process of typing chunks of prose into my laptop) that I had been more productive than I had imagined. Moving from city to city I had written tens of thousands of words of Hungry. That’s the primary benefit of longhand, for me: with nothing to divert it, my right hand stays busy.
The glitch was that this raw material was rawer than I had expected, and I didn’t know how all the different passages from all the different places would fit together. Hungry—in which I follow the most influential chef in global gastronomy, René Redzepi, as he travels around the world searching for flavor and inspiration—has scenes that take place in Copenhagen, Oaxaca, Mérida, Mexico City, Tulum, Manhattan, the Bronx, Sydney, a Mayan village on the Yucatán Peninsula, and a fishing boat above the Arctic Circle in Norway. These discrete chapters and chunks flowed pretty well on their own in the notebooks, but it was not immediately apparent that they would flow into each other with the consistency that we want from a book.
That consistency arrived when I switched to the laptop. “Search in Document” became my savior as I hopped around the raw manuscript and set out to weave the threads together.
In that way, Hungry was like a dish that began with a good sear in a frying pan on the stove but got finished off in the oven. I’m finishing this essay on a laptop, too, of course. I’m polishing it off at home while I listen to our twin babies, Jasper and Wesley, banging their toys in the next room. Jasper and Wesley will start crying any minute now; it is what babies do. When that happens, I’ll grab a clean notebook and dash for a train into the city—that’s the only way to get any work done.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier is available from Tim Duggan Books.
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