I was raised in the pre-computer age, when typewriters were the only “high tech” alternative to writing by hand. Only when I graduated from high school and was embarking on my college journey, which would cement my career as English teacher and writer, did I receive my first typewriter; by then, my practice of handwriting drafts was already entrenched, so I never made the transition to anything more mechanical. Much later, in grad school, computers were so new and frightening to me that I continued to draft in longhand, though the editing capacities of the new technology were too helpful to ignore. I made a conscious decision not to adapt my writing practice to the computer–not because I lacked the finesse, but because by then I had solidified my love for the handwritten writing process, so even now, I compose entirely by hand, often writing multiple versions of passages on paper before I transcribe them into electronic form, where cut and paste, insertions, and formatting functions simplify the difficult revision process. Those first hesitant efforts at forming words, developing thoughts, stringing together sentences and paragraphs, are impossible for me to undertake on a computer screen. I cannot compose in blue virtual space; words on a screen seem so insubstantial and unreal compared to words on paper, and a blinking cursor is a frantic little reminder, constant and annoying, that a new word must come. Write! Write! it screams. Feed me another word! Now!
Writing on paper slows my racing mind, makes me consider each word more thoughtfully, makes the process more deliberate and intentional. Each one of these effects is worthy, each in itself is reason enough to hold a pen in my hand rather than hover over a keyboard, but paper is richer and deeper than any of these as well. Writing on paper is also a tactile pleasure and a breathing transcript of a dialogue between the surface of paper and depth of mind.
I need the smoothness of the paper under the heel of my hand, the dent in my third finger from clenching my pen too tightly, the smudges on the outside of my pinky as it presses the words into the paper. I need the decisiveness of a turned page, its soft rustle and its faint scent of felled trees and clear skies. I need to be able to hold a sheet close to my chest when it seems to have sprung from there or to savor the sound of a rip or a crumple if the words will not work. I write on paper because I need to feel the words forming on the page, the smooth glide of my pen and the quiet vibration that moves through my fingers. Tapping computer keys is too harsh, staccato; words are reduced to letters placed in blocks. Sentences are not marked by gaps, impossibly full of possibility, formed by lifting my pen, but by a jab at a space bar. A computer monitor is a surreal landscape, a glowing, blue-bordered universe that exists nowhere in reality, and words within it are isolated and hard, frozen in a cube of photons that can not expand beyond the plastic frame of the screen. Words on paper, however, are only gently contained within a page’s border; they cluster and nudge, sometimes sliding obediently across pale blue lines, other times spilling sideways down margins or wedging themselves between existing lines, piling up in messy paragraphs on the back of sheets or jumbling together on Post-it notes slapped onto the page.
I need to see the conversation of words visibly before me, to see one word chosen over another, to have a record of false starts, to preserve choices. Lines can be crossed out–whole paragraphs even–and replaced by others, but still the first option is there, visible under my slashes. There is not the finality, the irretrievability of a block and delete command; there is the possibility of a Lazarus thought, brought back from the dead.
My pages are filled with struggle: tangible grappling with words, spreading pools of ink absorbed by paper fiber to mark where no words came, complicated doodles in the marginsBwebs to catch, spells to conjure and animate language. Occasionally, there are fluid, breezy lines unhalted by scrawled out passages or hesitantly chosen wordsBthese are hopeful lines, flung out and towing me home during the difficult times when I feel as though I can only go under. By contrast, the neat, rigid lines of type on a computer monitor, with their fully justified margins, by virtue of their clean orderliness, fool me into thinking the composition is polished and complete. The absence of blood on the page is stultifying and makes it harder to see where language has gone amuck. Revision, with all the wonderful potentials of that word–re-vision, a new way of seeing–is harder when I cannot see the process of my first searchings.
Over the years, I have filled reams of paper with language. Paper is my greatest delight: blank pages, crammed edge to edge with possibility. Loose leaf sheets, bound journals, tablet pads, spiral notebooks–paper has contained, maintained, preserved my spirit. It has changed in form and content as I have. It has held language within its margins–both the strong and the weak–and has recorded my writing life.
When I was a very young writer, newly thrilled with my recently unearthed talent, I faithfully watched The Waltons on TV, almost exclusively because I pined for John-Boy, who, like me, aspired to be a writer one day. And because he wrote his journals in Red Chief tablets, I too searched for Red Chief tablets on Hornsby’s dusty shelves. Much later, in grad school, I wrote both my thesis and dissertation on yellow legal ruled pads with thick cardboard backings. I still have that stack of notebooks, with the start and finish dates of each section of the manuscript on each cover; they are self-affirmation every time I touch them, far more than the nicely-bound book version of the finished product.
When on my first sabbatical I tackled my third book-length project, I chose Goldenrod tablets bought in bulk from an Amish general store. I remembered them from my childhood, but I had not seen them in years until I happened across them at this place that time had forgotten. Dust motes dangled in shafts of light; the shelf where I found the notebooks also held jars of preserves and loaves of fresh bread in crinkly plastic wrappers. To share a space with captured sweetness and sustenance–what better place for tablets of paper, which also preserve, sustain, fill with wholeness? Their smaller pages with thin yellow sheets held months of ideas, connections, perseverance. I loved their bright orange covers, their old-fashioned, comforting presence. They too hold words which confirm that my mind still works, that I have things worth saying. When that project resulted in my first book publication, receiving the first copies of the freshly bound volume in the mail was a thrill incomparable to anything else in my writing life, yet I will never part with the stack of Goldenrod tablets in which that book had its beginnings: process and struggle are worth remembering.
Even unfilled, notebooks are a pleasure. At bookstores, I always wind up in the journal section, touching the homemade paper, running my fingers over embossed bindings, holding them in my hands and testing their different textures and hefts. I buy new ones even when I don’t have a definite purpose in mind for them, just because I love the potential they have to hold words or simply because I love their shape, their covers, the quality of their paper. On a trip to England, I bought tiny notebooks as souvenirs, so now I have a box filled with small pads, none bigger than four by six. I will probably never use them, and I am beginning to get over the guilt of that fact and my continuing predilection to purchase even more. It eases my conscience to now claim that I collect notebooks–after all, no one expects stamp collectors to send their stamps afield on envelopes, or coin collectors to spend their coins as cash. I have given myself permission to enjoy them for their own beauty, for the symbolic weight each one possesses in my writer’s hand. I love them for the memories they stir, for the echoes of cathedrals and abbeys and castles and museums that I hear when I turn their pages.
Now in my writing practice, I almost exclusively use Moleskines, 3 2 by 5 2 black-bound notebooks whose bindings lie flat for easy writing. At the back of each is an accordion-sided pocket, for stashing scraps of papers with writing ideas. A black elastic band neatly presses the sheets together, muffling the magic of the language they contain. My sketchbook, my memo book, and my writing notebook are all Moleskines. Their dimensions are perfect, compact enough to carry anywhere, to slip into a pocket of my cargo pants or field coat, or to ride in my palm or my bag wherever I go. I feel like a writer using them, a professional with her little black book, a mystique that the makers of Moleskine claim that I share with Hemingway and Bruce Chatwick, fellow artists who also, they say, could not live without them. In the years since I began using them, I have filled over twenty from border to border with my tiny black script. The stack fills a cubby hole of my desk top shelves and reminds me, every time I look up from the one open before me, that I am a writer.
There is life in paper pages, life that can seep from a closed notebook and spill onto the next blank page. Life comes both from the writing and through me to it, a porous exchange, a reciprocal transfusion that I have come to depend upon as my life blood.