Updated: Jul 15, 2019
I wrote the essay below July 25, 1998. Much has changed since then. I now do all my writing on electronic devices and my books are published as ebooks. Most of my writing is on my laptop, but notes, scenes and even one piece of flash fiction was done entirely on my phone. Though I no longer have a foot in two worlds, I still feel a tug when I see brightly colored notebooks in stores at this time of year. What sent me back to this essay was not just the sight of those empty notebooks, but also a growing dissatisfaction with my laptop. I do so much else on it (and my phone) that too often too-little actual fiction-writing gets done. It’s the right time of year so I’ve decided to get a new spiral notebook and write in it instead. True, I’ll have to type it all in, but paper has one advantage that I didn’t even think of when I wrote the essay below: paper has no distractions attached to it. A paper notebook doesn’t come bundled with a thousand things that one can do, nor does it implicitly nag me about other things I need to do besides write (unless I’m so foolish as to write a To Do list). I use my computer (and computerized devices) for myriad things besides writing. Paper, for me, is just for writing.
So, for a little while, as summer comes to an end and fall begins, I’m experimenting with returning to the paper rhapsody…
I have a confession to make. I love buying school supplies. I never outgrew it. In July and August I see all the school stuff being stocked in the stores and I spend most of the time I’m there looking at folders, notebooks, binders, pens, pencils, loose-leaf paper, trying to decide what to buy–as if I needed it. Well, sometimes I do, but that’s usually coincidental. I mean, I can buy a binder or folder whenever the need arises.
Even though I do almost all my writing on a computer these days blank pieces of college-ruled paper still have a seductive allure to me. All those folders and binders, too. Their very emptiness implies the need to fill them with something wonderful. Spiral notebooks both with and without dividers and pockets, one subject, 3 subjects or 5 subjects. So neatly organized (which I, by nature, am not). I want to fill them, to begin writing on the first page and not stop until I reach the end.
I haven’t bought any this year (1998), mostly because the only time I’ve been to the store was with my mother-in-law and she didn’t understand. From her perspective, if I need a notebook, well, she’d found a couple of old notebooks while going through stuff at the old house and I could have those. But it’s more than just having paper to write on, it’s the whole look of the thing. Folder, binder, or spiral notebook? What color? How big? Large canvas binder, or small plastic binder? If a spiral notebook, with or without dividers and pockets? If you could see me in a school supply section in August, I look very much like someone in the vegetable department of a grocery store, searching for a ripe melon, trying to find a few apples without bruises, except that fruits and vegetables don’t induce that dreamy state of possibilities that school supplies do.
I try to match what I will write to the item which will contain it. If substantial parts are already done, perhaps a binder or folder. A spiral notebook with pockets would hold an idea that existed only as notes on a handful of pages. A whole new idea would likely call for a brand new spiral notebook usually without pockets. Color is always tough to choose and ultimately comes down to mood, but sometimes a project just seems to need to be put in, say, a plain black notebook, or a plastic binder that’s screaming red.
When I was a kid I always looked forward to school starting; I wonder now if part of it wasn’t just that I looked forward to all those packets of paper, binders, and spiral notebooks. They represent possibilities, the unwritten future, and in the case of school, they represented knowledge–things I did not yet know would be on those pieces of paper by the end of the year. Granted, quite a lot of those pieces of paper would be folded, tattered, dog-eared, and threatening to burst unrestrained out of my locker each time I opened it to get a book. Even so, I was sometimes fairly amazed that I had managed to fill all those sheets. Paper, though we throw it away in great year-end locker cleanings, carries us forward into the future.
Writing is forward movement. It is an act of creation, even if you are just taking notes or solving math problems. The page was blank and now it’s not. You have recorded words and thoughts. One minute they are in your mind, the next minute you have written them down as a math problem. The professor lectures, you take notes and in doing so you are following in the footsteps of thousands of scribes over the centuries. You’ve recorded what you have heard which is no less amazing than recording what you’ve seen, done or thought. Even better, this recording process helps fix the thing recorded into your memory. If you do forget, it is written down forever as long as you have that piece of paper.
I don’t believe in the paperless society the computer age was supposed to usher in. Computers generate more wastepaper than school kids do. Why? Because mankind wants hardcopies of everything. Reams of paper are printed and discarded. Printed, because paper is more portable and easier to use than computers. Printed, because people (like me) who didn’t grow up with computers want to see it on paper. It isn’t real unless it’s on paper. Discarded, because the fate of all paper is to be either discarded or filed. Computers excel at filing things. In a way, my computer is simply one vast file cabinet, although not all the files are comprised of words. So, after we have seen the paper with our words on it, and we have held it, scribbled in the margins or on the back, passed it around, carried it from place to place, and read it over and over again, it will probably be discarded because the alternative is to file it and the computer file is much neater, even allowing the addition of those comments jotted in the margin to the file.
Perhaps computer technology in its next big leap forward really will create that paperless society. Perhaps it’s only a matter of what we are used to and the generation coming up behind me will have no use for hardcopies. They will rhapsodize in e-mails to their friends about the lure of the blank screen and the romance of the toolbar in their word processing program.
I stand with a foot in both worlds. I do almost all my writing on the computer, but I often print hardcopies as I work. Not every draft, nor change, nor day’s work, gets a printout–I print much less than I used to–but ultimately I do not trust my eyes to the screen and will curl up on the couch with a stack of papers to proofread. I catch a lot of dropped words and awkward phrases that I do not see on the screen. I will often begin projects writing by hand and then type the first pages into the computer because I have that paper passion. As I look around me I see the evidence of this. A spiral notebook, 2 clipboards with notepads, a stack of looseleaf paper, and three smaller notebooks with things I’ve jotted down while doing webwork surround me. My acknowledgement of the amount of work I do on the computer is contained in two binders and a couple of folders, carefully chosen from the school supplies section of the store for size and color, keeping in mind what work each would contain. The paper rhapsody continues.