For the last few days, my attention has been caught up in the “notebook problem.” Yes, Ebola has now been found in America; ISIS continues its reign of terror; the drought in the western United States has become dire for farmers and anyone with a lawn; and racial unrest in Ferguson boils over every night as darkness falls. Yet, here I am worried about notebooks. I guess it is about how I obsess over those other things that makes me concerned about my notebooks because it is in my notebooks that I mull over the state of the world, the way we live now, the future and the past and of course, the present.
As the world turns, I compulsively write. I note. I get down the words and phrases I hear. I record the drama and the comedy. I cannot stop my hands on the keyboard or from moving across a page. Last month, I wrote more than 17,000 words and 27 single-spaced pages in a file on my computer called “Chronicle,” but is, in fact, my journal. None of that material saw publication, and I would not want it to, but every word was necessary to my sanity. So 17,000 words on top of essays, reports, emails, memos, teaching materials, and class notes that did see the light of publication in some form. I write this by way of proving that keeping a notebook is essential to my life, the way I make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world.
So what is the problem? The computer file and 17,000 words are not enough.
First, I am in love with the feeling of a medium-nib fountain pen moving across a fresh page. I love the cursive spin of the words, something I first learned in second grade. I love a school composition notebook, with its black and white speckled cover in all its infinite varieties of college-ruled, wide-ruled, assorted colors in that traditional speckled pattern, or even a few I picked up in Santa Barbara from Chaucer’s Books that are called “Decomposition Books” because they are made entirely of recycled material. I love my reporter’s notebooks, suitable for notes and lists and quick jots. I love legal pads for class notes, and especially love the ones made out of recycled paper that soak of the dark blue or black ink spilling from the aforementioned fountain pen. I love typing, my fingers flying across the keyboard stacking up words on words on words.
Writing instruments—yes, I love the laptop computer, so portable, so convenient. And let’s break down the fountain pen fetish: I have three cheap Schaeffer’s that tend to leak when left in my leather satchel, so they camp out on my desk in a cup. They are utilitarian and get the job done, but are not my first choice. I have three Waterman’s that work best on the recycled paper. I have a rich-looking Cartier, black and silver and ready for speed, but with a very small ink tube that limits its mileage.
I am left-handed, which means that most writing instruments, desks, and other minutiae of the writing life are not designed for me, but I make do. I tend to grip my pens too firmly, and therefore, I suffer from painful writer’s cramp after only a page or two. If I persist for an hour, my hand will loosen up and I’m fine, but when I first start out, it is slow, painful going. This is why I’ve gravitated to the keyboard for all my writing recently. I take notes in the reporter’s notebook, a kind of shorthand that I can later expand into full, typewritten notes. But I miss the swirl of the pen across the page, crafting sentence after sentence, slow and steady and considered.
How I write is as important as what I write. I need the perfect combination of tactile and fluid writing on the first draft as I do the combination of editing and revision in later drafts. Many studies have been done that associate the engagement with pen and paper as a way of internalizing a topic or subject. The brain engages with the pen in hand in a way it doesn’t in any other form. To physically take up the pen is like firing the pistons in the engine that is the brain. Therefore, we mourn the loss of cursive instruction. Those who should know better say no one writes with a pen anymore. Kids exit the womb looking for a keyboard, or at the very least, voice activated software that allows them to start navigating the wired world immediately after the umbilical cord is cut. Sever one cord and go cordless? Life could use some retrogression, some slowing down.
Yet, the question must be asked: is my writing different when I write a draft out by hand first? For me, the pain in my hand often limits the expansive-ness of my draft, so I usually wind up adding more when I type it up. But I’m okay with that. There are also some things that simply must be written by hand while others need the speedy typist. Therefore, here is the plan:
For my response to the world, the chronicling of real life as it is lived, not my life, but world life, I will type directly into my “Chronicle” file. Reportage, no “I” allowed. I will be the third person objective reporter. This material, however, will not be for publication, although it may be reworked into something at a later date. This is transcription of what’s going on out there.
In my composition books, I will write down my personal reflections. In this notebook, it is all about me, and most certainly will never see the light of publication. These are the notebooks I’ll ask my wife to destroy without reading when I am gone. On these pages, I can be whiny, narcissistic, self-absorbed, vain, puerile, immature. I can rant and rave and bemoan my poor station in life. Boo-hoo. But, I will also try to examine my own spirituality, my faith, my hopes and dreams. This will be my notebooks of secrets.
My beloved reporter’s notebooks will be used for lists and quick notes, like interesting words or phrases, people I want to research, concepts I wish to explore, daily compilations of things to do. This will be the notebook that will often be stuck into a back pocket for an emergency pen and paper. I have them already in my car, my satchel, my desk drawer, my work space. The ubiquitous quick thought receptacle, always at the ready.
The legal pad is for work—class notes, full drafts, research material, fully excavated and fileted ideas, splayed out on the page like an unlucky frog in high school biology class. I will also go back later and type up these notes after revisions, reorganizations, re-prioritizings, until they are ready and willing to be written up as essays.
Of course, will I have time for so much writing? Will it become “too many notebooks, so little time?” Will some of these pristine pages die of loneliness? Will they feel neglected? My answer is this: I want to write well enough to justify the killing of the trees. In the end, wherever and whatever I write, that is the only thing that matters.