Why not compose on the computer? The primary answer is that a blank page urges me to fill it in a way that a blank screen does not.
Perhaps that’s because typing on a screen has that clean look of being finished that a handwritten page doesn’t. Editing sentences or paragraphs on a computer requires back-clicking, highlighting, and otherwise remembering commands, whereas crossing out a phrase or circling a sentence and placing an arrow or adding a caret and word are easy. Mess is good. It means I’ve been busy.
And there’s that matter of permanence: a draft on paper stays there until the paper is destroyed. If I am dissatisfied with what I’ve written, I walk away in disgust. Chances are that sometime later I will come across it and think, hmm, there’s a germ of an idea there worth keeping. I should go back to it.
With a computer screen, if I dislike something, I don’t save it. Poof—it’s gone. I know I could create a document file, but frankly it takes work at a moment when I’m disgusted with what I’ve written. And then if I do happen to save it, I have to find the file and open it to read it. A notebook is more organic: while I’m thumbing through, looking for the next blank page, I run into all those ideas I discarded.
With novels, there’s the additional problem of distraction. I compose fiction slowly. There’s a lot of staring out of the window to see whether the chipmunk will climb the tree, forage in the pachysandra, or dive into its burrow; or admiring the library poster I’ve read dozens of times about the availability of large-print books and wondering how much longer large-print books are than regular-print ones.
The point is, I don’t write fiction with white-heat fury, as some do. It’s more a series of sprints followed by not very measured pauses. During those pauses I ruminate about many things (hey look—the chipmunk scared away a nuthatch) but mostly about the novel. Put a computer in front of me during one of those pauses, and chances are I won’t return to whatever I’ve been writing. After all, composing a novel is hard. Checking my email, or looking up my Google Reader, or clicking through links isn’t.
So yeah. I still rely on pen and paper, and probably will for some time to come.