Ellen Notbohm: The Right Tool for the Job

Putting pencil to paper brings out the emotional authenticity of a historical novel.

Ellen Notbohm  

When Annie Rushton came into my life, I already knew how to be a writer. As a book author and magazine columnist, I’d written about autism, baseball, history, and politics. I even wrote about writing. I knew how to be a writer! I sat at my desk in front of my laptop and banged out a thousand words a day, often more, often working on three things at once.

For thousands of years, writing was a one-handed affair. Barely 150 years ago, the keyboard became the writer’s right- and left-hand man. From the advent of the manual typewriter to today’s electronic devices and apps, the ever-evolving technology of being able to write with two hands instead of one increases our speed, our output. It allows our hands to better keep up with our brains and all the words that need to flow from them. Onto paper, onto disks, onto clouds. Faster and faster and more and more efficient our writing becomes. I zoomed along with it, until I met Annie Rushton, a woman who’d left this planet long before I arrived.

Then I backslid.

And it was the best thing that ever happened to my writing.

I never thought I’d write historical fiction. All of the history I’d written was nonfiction, and it was good nonfiction—factual, well-researched, relatable, spiked with personal experiences that created moving perspectives. One editor faux-grumbled, “I hate the fact that you hook me all the damn time with your heart-wrenching stuff.”

I found Annie Rushton (not her real name) after years of banging my writer/researcher shovel against a century-old genealogical brick wall. Every family has one, and Annie was the ancestor no one would talk about. When I found out why—she endured recurring postpartum psychosis—it became to me a story of devastating personal misfortune and social injustice that needed to be brought into the light, a different light than the one she confronted in her era. And because, even with concerted research, I could breach that brick wall but not topple it, I would tell Annie’s story in a novel, The River by Starlight.

The River by Starlight

Every writer of historical fiction grapples with how much literary license to take. Can certain aspects be merely plausible, if not precisely accurate? To what degree are we allowed to change history? I was prepared to wrestle with the question of whether to change history at countless turns in the telling. But not prepared for how that history would change me.

I became a pencil pusher. I got the lead out.

I closed my keyboard and began writing my novel, in pencil, in spiral notebooks, beginning each day at 5:00 a.m. I pushed those pencils hard. I pushed back to Annie’s time, surrounded by the handwritten documents of her day — the letters, terse government documents, disturbing doctors’ reports, deeds and land transfers, a heart-shattering separation agreement. I pushed back against the tragedy of the digital age wherein we make handwriting scarce, thinking it unnecessary, thinking that the efficiency of the keyboard to record facts and tell a story faster and more tidily must mean it’s better.

I pushed my pencil, awkwardly at first, but with increasing agility and joy.  The uniqueness of my handwriting, the wonder and individuality, became necessary to the creation of a unique story. The wonder of rediscovering a dormant skill — I watched the words flow with the subtle, almost imperceptible movements of fingers and it seemed like magic. The sensory elements connected me to Annie’s time, the smell of the lead and wood of the pencil, the smear of the eraser on the paper, the skittering of tiny pink shavings.

I wrote longhand so I could feel the emotion of the words forming — the grief, the ecstasy, the fear, the hope, the shock of betrayal, the peace of forgiveness. Pushing my pencil through the wee hours seemed natural, almost ordained. The pre-dawn darkness and stillness and the quiet efficiency of writing (no keys tapping, fans whirring, notifications pinging) opened me to hearing, feeling, and perceiving a whole other-dimensional world that may not have risen to consciousness in the clamorous daylight.

When the pencils dulled, I stuck them in a little desktop machine that makes a brash and hostile sound while it chews up the end of the pencil — oh, excuse me, it hones it. It sharpens the tip. It shortens the length — the life — of the pencil but exposes the portion that allows it to go on being useful, a creator of beauty — or hurtful, an inflictor of pain. I grew to see my pencils as profound, a metaphor for life itself.  That no one else’s handwriting has looked — or ever will look — like mine is magic. That no one else would tell this story, this way, was the magic of my life. That singularity is the magic every writer strives for.

The River by Starlight will be published on May 8 by She Writes Press. Learn more about Ellen’s work at www.ellennotbohm.com.



One comment

  1. Great idea. I can no longer write with a pen or pencil easily due to arthritis, but appreciate the emotional connection an implement like that brings. At prompt-writing get togethers other writers do use writing implements but it’s just not realistic for me so I use my laptop. And just make a sincere effort to connect emotionally. The advantage is that I can write more and faster as my inspirations tumble out. But, I get it. Used to keep a hand-written journal which now is only for notes on the fly.


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