Writing Life: How Writing By Hand Saved My Memoir by Gita Brown

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I’ve always hated my handwriting. Back in third grade in the eighties, we were supposed to make the transition from print to elegant cursive script. But I missed most of Mrs. Woolf’s cursive class to attend violin lessons. While I scratched out Lightly Row, my classmates were learning the intricacies of a capital Q and the elusive swoops of a Z. I can still feel Mrs. Woolf’s arm wrapped gently around my shoulder as she helped me catch up. Her patience was laudable; I usually pressed so hard I ended up ripping the paper. My handwriting evolved—well, limped gamely forward—to its current hybrid of print and cursive. I didn’t know my handwriting would launch me into a writing career at mid-life. And I didn’t know when I started to write a memoir my handwriting would unlock the story only I can tell.

I used to think of myself as a musician who tinkered with writing. I had a blog and had published a handful of essays in local papers. But one afternoon, clarity cut through the incessant chatter of my mind. “Write down what happened with Orlando,” the clear voice stated with calm precision. I drafted the story and eventually cobbled together enough pages to gain admission to the Memoir Incubator, a year-long intensive program at Boston’s GrubStreet writing center. The book explores how I tried to live in a state of love, set against the slow-moving trauma of watching my ex-husband self-destruct with alcohol. Up until GrubStreet, I had managed to keep the book contained to my computer, save the inevitable scribbled notes on Post-its and old receipts. But under pressure to produce the required two thousand words a week and keep up with craft lectures, my long-neglected handwriting began to teach me how to write.

In those days, I only wrote in coffee shops. I couldn’t bear to bring the pain of the past into my new home, named Three Dog Farm after our dogs, Rosie, Ranger, and Zoë. I would initiate each session with a free-write in my favorite notebook. The pen, a navy blue or black Pilot G-2, would scratch out all the things that blocked me from telling the story, a brain dump of, “Did I pay the cable bill?” and “What if I never finish?” I kept the notebook next to my computer, and whenever my emotions about the writing process clouded my ability to move forward with the draft, I’d vent on the page. I noticed what my handwriting revealed. Some days it was expansive and smooth—usually when I felt like I was in a flow state during which writing came easily. On other days it became cramped and entirely illegible—and then I’d realize I needed sleep. I didn’t know how I could deny my fatigue; I only knew that the pen showed me what I refused to see.

Slowly I began to trust my rickety letters. After watching my teacher, award-winning author Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, diagram their entire book structure on a whiteboard free-hand, I decided to use my longhand to advance my writing. I’d arrive early to my music studio and use the whiteboard to diagram experimental book structures across a swoop that illustrated a narrative arc. Getting my words off the lockstep chronological narrative of the computer screen showed me how I could tell the story by expanding and compressing time. New associations popped up as I allowed my words to move diagonally and vertically. The sound of trumpet players blatting warm-ups and pianists running scales kept me company as I let my hand move across the board. Very soon, I found when I returned to the computer, a narrator was emerging. My classmates and Alex read my pages. “I trust this narrator,” they said. “You have enough narrative distance now so we can see a story developing.”

Having more command of the material made it safe to bring my past trauma into my present life. I became confident enough to write at home. I made a little corner nook in an upstairs bedroom of the farm in the woods I shared with my new husband. The pines whooshed outside while I spent the long, dark winter working on the book. Inside, my feet were cozy against the baseboard heaters, and I began using the open notebook to capture some of the free association effects of the whiteboard. In class, we explored narrative distance and how films use different shots to establish geography, time, and mood. Instead of focusing on linear words, I found myself thinking about my book like a movie; I’d try to imagine what the viewer would see.

I drew boxes with stick figures representing the action—regrettably, my drawing is even worse than my handwriting. But it worked well enough that I could draw a storyboard for each chapter, a shot-by-shot picture, and a keyword diagram of the action. Then when I hopped to the computer, the prose flowed to fill in the spaces I’d drawn. I got down a whole draft this way, and I remember Alex clutching the pages and shaking them, eyes charged. “Gita,” they said, “you’ve got a book here. I don’t know how you did it, but just keep going.”

But writing memoir is like a brutal endurance mountain climb, one that can take years. And taking my chapters and refining them into a structure is the seemingly Sisyphean task I feel compelled to complete. So I return to my scribbled handwriting to keep me company as I revise. There’s the leather bound journal hubby gave me last Christmas. I love the way the leather smells like oak firewood. Then there is the steady supply—gifts from my aunt—of Maruman Sept Couleur notebooks from Japan; I can only describe their heavy paper as creamy. I’ve fallen in love with using colored index cards to organize my book’s structure.

Three Dog Farm has a sprawling kitchen. On writing days, I lay my index cards across the kitchen counter in the shape of the book’s narrative arc. I group them by theme, plot point, and narrative purpose and fill them with my handwriting. I find myself furiously scribbling ideas for transitional sentences on the backs of the cards. I head to the stove and stir whatever soup I’ve got bubbling that day, and then go back to the cards and rearrange and scribble some more. The cards allow my handwriting to draw my interior world forward and live in service to the story. Using my hands and a pen, there is no delete key and no option to erase an idea before it starts.

I’m still revising my memoir. Even during the many times I’ve pretended to quit, the need to write it has never waned. I still don’t understand how to write a cursive Q or Z, but I think Mrs. Woolf would be proud that my scrawling has led me to make my life into art. I have enough words behind me now to know that I don’t have to care how my handwriting looks. I only need to follow what it’s asking me to see.


Gita Brown has personal essays published in the Boston Globe Magazine, The Fix, Ruminate Magazine, and a micro-essay in Creative Nonfiction #70. Her essay, “They’ll Never Call Me Mom,” was a 2019 finalist for Ruminate’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize. Her writing about teaching yoga to children with special needs has been featured in The Hingham Journal and The Cohasset Mariner. In 2017 she graduated from the Memoir Incubator. Mrs. Brown is a passionate yoga and music educator with over thirty years of teaching experience.

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