Writer in Residence

On Writing in Longhand

By Geoffrey Morrison

I have bad handwriting. I always have. I remember as a child being put through the terrible paces of the Canadian Penmanship books at school, which were intended to teach us to write in cursive (one of those things that certain Boomers complain isn’t being taught anymore - personally, I am not shedding any tears). Every letter, whether capital or initial, was a horrible trial for me. I could never get my letters to match the examples, and I could never get any of my individual efforts to look like my other ones. There was also something of a competition aspect; as other kids blew through the pages and thus got closer to never having to do this ever again, I remained stuck in the dangerous wilds of capitals H-I-J-K-L-M-N for a very long time and felt awful. So when I finally reached capital O, I figured this was my chance to make up for lost time. A big O was just a circle! And I knew how to draw those. I raced through the page and showed my teacher, who was supposed to sign off on our progress. I don’t remember her exact words, but she communicated to me that my Os were not good enough and would have to be redone. She gestured to them. She told me they were all different sizes and shapes. That was true enough, I supposed, but they were still all identifiably Os. Incidentally, this is one of many memories that would take a different meaning for me once I finally received an ADHD diagnosis well into adulthood.

Anyway, given such a rocky start as a penperson, it is surprising - not least to me - that I would later come to find such value in writing my drafts in longhand. The story of how this happened takes some explaining. 

The author's original notebooks used in the composition of Falling Hour

The author's original notebooks used in the composition of Falling Hour

Certainly when I thought of myself as a poet I almost never wrote a poem that way. I typically used the computer. Not long ago I was out having Mexican food with my brother (hi, Gregor!) and I described to him the feeling of writing a poem as “playing Jenga with your own neurons.” It’s precise, finicky work, and it benefits from your being able to delete, undo, copy, and paste as much as you need. My earliest efforts to write fiction were arguably hobbled by my attempts to do it the same way as I had written poetry. I laboured over every word. This was kind of a sad paradox, because the words themselves were nothing special, and the words were nothing special because my overall vision of what I was doing was so confused, and my overall vision was so confused because I was afraid of doing, and being, what I really had to be. What I really had to do, and be, was weird as hell. But I wasn’t ready to accept that yet. So I laboured over a historical novel about Giordano Bruno that I never got a handle on. It’s a measure of how much time I spent agonizing over those sentences that, when I Iost a whole chapter that didn’t save properly, I was able to reconstruct it from memory almost word for word. Again, the chapter was not good! But I was treating every sentence like a complex demining, so it was all lodged very tightly in my brain. 

Somewhere along the line, I began to suspect that the computer, with its temptations of endless revision (and, worse, “research”), was part of the problem. But the first few times I tried to write longhand, I had to overcome a lot of old baggage about my handwriting. “Chicken scratch,” my unkind teachers used to call it. But then I remembered I was an adult and who cares. I was the only one who would have to read it. So, perhaps a third of the way through Falling Hour, I made the switch. I think it shows. My sentences got longer. My digressions, freer. My associations, wilder. I no longer felt like I was playing Jenga. I felt I could do, and be, something weird as hell, a long exhalation of everything I had ever thought of in the world instead of a miserable little puzzle constantly getting in its own way. 

There were other advantages to writing it this way. I was no longer tied to a desk, a chair, a room. I could write outside, and I did. Much of Falling Hour was written during the 2020 Covid lockdowns, so this was very welcome. I would finish my day job and then go write in a park, or on the balcony of the apartment. I can even remember where I was when I wrote certain passages, the way the breeze or the light literally infiltrated the writing and became a part of the story. The haunted sea air at the end of Chapter 22 was real. The little pocket of blue through a window of cloud through a window of trees in Chapter 11 was real, as were all the shades of green described in the same chapter. I have an especially fond memory of writing the second-to-last chapter, 24, while sitting on a concrete block in a park as my wife Erica, who had just taken up roller skating, practiced her turns and tried not to fall. Almost three years on, Erica is a great skater, and the sport means a lot to her. It moves me that we were both figuring out something kind of hard to do but important to us at exactly the same moment.   

Of course, the downside to writing longhand drafts is that I later have to transcribe them. This takes time, and sometimes even I can’t read what I wrote (don’t tell my teachers). Plus there is always the risk that I misplace a notebook or lose it to fire or flood. But it hasn’t happened yet. So, for the foreseeable future, I will be filling my notebooks with horrible, inconsistent little letters that only I can read. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Geoffrey D. Morrison is the author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson, of the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). He was a finalist in both the poetry and fiction categories of the 2020 Malahat Review Open Season Awards and a nominee for the 2020 Journey Prize. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver). Falling Hour is his first novel.