Pen and Paper

Now that I’ve finished reading Sedaris’s thoroughly enjoyable When You Are Engulfed in Flames, I’ve moved on to Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, about the practice of writing memoir. Here’s page 1:

Writing is an athletic activity. It comes from the whole body, your knees and arms, kidneys, liver, fingers, teeth, lungs, spine—all organs and body parts leaning in with you, hovering in concentration over the page. And just like any other sport, it takes practice. Behind the football we see on TV, the players have put in hundreds of hours before the big game. The muscles of writing are not so visible, but they are just as powerful: determination, attention, curiosity, a passionate heart.

Begin to work those muscles. . . . Pick up the pen and do these ten-minute exercises. Choose a cheap notebook, in which you are not afraid to make mistakes. Use a fast pen. Try out different ones. Find what suits you. The mind is faster than the hand. Don’t slow the hand down more with a ballpoint or a pencil. . . .

But I like a pencil, you say.

Then use it.

What about a computer?

Use that if you like. Only know that handwriting and pressing the keys with your fingers are two different physical activities and a slightly different slant of mind comes out from each one. Not better or worse, just different.

For me, the distinction between writing by hand and writing by computer is private versus public.

When I write private stuff on the computer, I find that I tend to whine a lot, and the result is rather unsatisfying. If I write with an audience in mind, though, the computer affords me the modicum of distance I need to articulate my thoughts properly, to explain, to choose.

When I write public stuff, or stuff that will become public, by hand, the result is similarly unsatisfying. My emotions get tangled up in my words, and I can’t sharpen my thoughts enough to make them understood by someone who is not me.

Many years ago, my mother gave me a fountain pen. It was a Sheaffer Targa (that’s a picture of it to the right). I even bought a special italic nib made for lefthanders. Then I misplaced it and bought another so she wouldn’t know, and ended up with two, both of which disappeared somewhere between Vermont and Florida. I deeply mourn their loss, because the pens were so wonderful to write with.

I recently started hunting for a replacement online (and oh my goodness, how expensive they’ve become now that the line has been discontinued!), but my intuition keeps nudging me, telling me I’ll find my long-lost pens squirreled away in some box I never unpacked. I just don’t have the requisite grit and determination right now to do such a careful search.

I wanted that pen mainly so that I could write in a journal I bought a few years ago. I was looking for last-minute Christmas gifts, and ran across this beautiful book, bound in black leather with gilt-edged pages and two—count ’em, two!—ribbon markers. So it was a gift to myself.

Problem was, I decided I couldn’t violate that book’s pristine pages with a anything less than a fine fountain pen, and I really wanted my old pen back. So it sits on my bookshelf, still wrapped in its protective clear plastic envelope, waiting for the Great Day.

One evening I realized, with a shock, that even if I had found my wonderful fountain pen, and had filled it with some expertly blended ink—somewhere between jet black and a deep maroon, taking care that it doesn’t come out a shade of brown—I wouldn’t have the heart to desecrate That Book. It’s too perfect. Those pure, blank pages mock me. How could I possibly have anything worthy to write in it? I’d have to write on computer, refine it, make it perfect, then transfer it to the Book with great care, like a medieval scribe. And even then I’d probably make a mistake somewhere, a misspelling, a blob of ink, and it would all be ruined. Utterly, utterly ruined.

I liked Goldberg’s idea of finding a notebook you won’t be afraid to make mistakes in, and I have a nice, cheap pen that I really love. (The Pilot Precise V5 Extra Fine, with its Unique Liquid Ink Technology. While I generally prefer black, it’s available in a decent array of colors. The purple is strangely compelling.)

But I think I’m going to take the middle ground. I’ve found some refillable journals with hand-torn pages of acid-free paper, hand-stitched to lay flat when opened. The covers are hand-stitched leather with a gorgeous rope tie. When out of their covers these journals (ranging in size from 4×6 to 9×12) look positively nondescript, almost a tiny bit dowdy, which actually appeals to me; but inside their covers, they are terribly inviting. These—I think, I hope—are books I wouldn’t be afraid to write in with my cheap roller ball pens, wouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes in, wouldn’t be afraid to cross out and scratch over, and make doodles in when my mind wanders, or even jot the occasional grocery list in. I think. I hope.

And in these journals, I can write secrets. Things I want to say but can’t show to others, at least not until I and everyone I have ever known or even met in passing are dead. Not that I have that many deep, dark secrets, honestly. I just want a place to write them if I do.

Basically I’ll do Natalie Goldberg’s ten-minute exercises in them, or perhaps Julia Cameron’s idea of “morning pages,” or maybe some of the writing experiments proposed by my beloved Deena Metzger in her Writing for Your Life. Some of them may show up as blog posts. Some of them may become reflections on the long process of dying, or Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphic resonance, or the proper way to cook asparagus, or unique ways to dispatch one’s enemies.

In which case I’ll get to use words like defenestrate and oubliette. And that will make it all worthwhile.

Categories: Brain, Writing | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Pen and Paper

  1. “When I write public stuff, or stuff that will become public, by hand, the result is similarly unsatisfying. My emotions get tangled up in my words, and I can’t sharpen my thoughts enough to make them understood by someone who is not me.”

    Same here.

  2. Jennie

    Defenestrate is one of my favorite words, as well. I first encountered it when I was nine, in the title of an Arthur C. Clarke short story: “The Defenestration of Ermintrude Inch.” I found it during the golden age of my youthful fiction reading, a time when nearly all the books at my fingertips had been preselected for quality. My favorite uncle, Baird, was going through a divorce, and had prevailed upon my mother (who had also recently divorced) to let him store some of his more precious possessions (including, periodically, himself) at our house until he could “get things sorted out.” These most precious things were primarily a very large number of science and science fiction books, including Clarke, Asimov, LeGuin, Pohl, and many more. He generously allowed me unfettered access to the whole collection (my mother would have been appalled had she had any idea of the topics science fiction writers actually tackled), and, since in the process of moving out of his house he had ruthlessly eliminated those books that he considered marginal or non-essential, what was left was the utter cream of of fifties and sixties SF, along with a generous helping of Asimov’s and George Gamow’s science writing. Access to these books transformed my life—and taught me the meaning of cool words like defenestrate.

  3. indigobunting

    I do hope you find those pens.

  4. Jennie

    I have such difficulty with the physical act of writing—ommisions, reversals, misplaced letters and words, hand fatigue, and so on—that the computer has been my salvation for writing of all varieties. Actually, the typewriter was my first love. I had a wonderful old manual typewriter that was given to me by my mother when I was five. I used it almost constantly for my own writing and for those school assignments that would be tolerated typewritten, even though I went through nearly as much correction fluid as ink.

    That said, there is something wonderful about writing with a good pen on fine paper that cannot be duplicated through typing. I discovered this when I took up calligraphy in an attempt to improve my handwriting. It had zero effect on legibility (I found that when I do calligraphy, I “draw” the letters rather than “writing” them, and the wonderfully elegant and precise forms that I drew vanished the instant I stopped drawing and started to try to convey meaning), but it did clue me in to the joys of pen and ink on vellum.

    Nothing beats pen and notebook for notetaking in classes for me, though. As anyone who has spent time in my treatment room probably knows, I draw all kinds of diagrams and arrows and lines showing the interrelationship of ideas, temporal and spatial connections, and boundaries. Typing wouldn’t compare, unless it was a really fancy stylus setup.

  5. I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

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