The authority of paper: loving the page in a screened-in world

One of the rare but considerable benefits of growing older is the deep pool of shimmering memories that we can gaze back on from time to time. It’s like an oasis amid the downsides, and writers have the added advantage of being able to look into that pool and reflect on paper. Just a few steps from the tar pits and fossilization, I have fond memories of writing in the days before computers. Yes, writing longhand has its deep joys and satisfactions.

Now as in childhood, I revel in the power of the sharpened pencil, the almost sexual thrill of the pristine white paper growing engorged with dark scrawls. I have always loved the powerful, soothing feel of the pencil’s sharpened graphite cutting into the paper. Then as now, I press hard into the paper, leaving a deep, black and definite impression. No gray surface scratches for me. Subtlety and restraint are for others.

The urge to read from the page rather than the computer screen, however, is probably more neurosis than pleasure. The young folks I work with have no problem reading off the  screen. They don’t find it cumbersome or annoying to scroll down page after page of long documents. If I’m editing, I don’t mind, but if I’m reading I’d much rather spend a blissful, thoughtful second turning the page than mousing down to the next screen.

 Also, the young’uns don’t have a problem with not being able to touch the manuscript. They scroll merrily down the page and type notes directly onto the screen. I frequently need the intermediary step of jotting notes on paper so that I can see what I’m thinking. Thanks to my atavistic leanings, I usually print out manuscripts and read them, making notes in the margins, rather than reading from the screen. I know it’s inefficient, but somehow I gain some insight, some value that outweighs the economy of screen reading.

But it’s beyond the screen-versus-page issue. We’re at war here, a war between our love of all things computerized, immediate and modern, and the nostalgia for the slow, dreamy and archaic inefficiencies of longhand writing. The computer is sleek and metallic, as monolithic and carefully planned as a New York City skyscraper. Its wiring and circuitry are complex and mimic a map of the human brain.

Writing on paper — in pencil, not pen — is as clumsy and bungling as a child learning the alphabet. It is a visit to the forest after living in the city of computerdom. Based not on the sturdiness of metal but on the decaying nature of wood, it is nonetheless a tactile joy, sensuously pleasing. Holding the wooden pencil, using the graphite stylus to cut hieroglyphics into the wood-based paper, is a reunion of deeply set elements of our primitive, creative mind. It is the impractical, roundabout country detour that takes us places that the beltline never could. It is a meandering journey into creative unity.


Don’t get me wrong. I am as computer-addicted as anyone. I fret and stew and contact the Help desk when my laptop takes more than 30 seconds to boot — even while remembering that my old Commodore 64 took a shave and shower’s time to load a simple software program. I love erasing my idiocies with a few keyclicks and pretending to be an organizational genius because I can swap text around like a carny  hiding peas in a shell game. Yet I confess a guilty affection for inefficiency. I yearn for my old 1941 Royal office model. I still remember how I had to, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski, play the keyboard like a percussion instrument because the keys were so hard to depress. I remember when I grudgingly switched from that typewriter to a newfangled used Remington electric. And I remember the days when I wrote much of my manuscript longhand, then went to the typewriter and wrote furiously, and then cut and pasted the resulting mess into coherency. Using scissors and Scotch tape, mind you, not <CTRL> + C and <CTRL> + V. There is a certain organic and warm feel to that process that the computer, for all its duplicative brilliance, cannot replicate.

I write this even as I have cut and pasted the previous paragraph from an earlier location because it made more sense there. I suppose that the computer has helped make me whatever success I am as a writer. But paper must have its due as well. I love paper … love ordering old books and smelling the yellowed pages, love making bold pencil strokes on white foolscap, love its wood essence and its decaying nature.

I’m not the Abe Lincoln of legend scrawling his schoolwork on the back of a shovel with a piece of coal. In fact, I’ve always wondered if Abe toted that shovel in to school the next day and, if so, how his teacher reacted. At least the dog never ate his homework! But I do have a fondness, even reverence, for the power of the paper and pencil. Like long draughts of water, like good wine or a good book, the process of longhand writing slows us down and lends itself to reflection.

For the younger folks who need incentive to venture into this archaic way of writing, let me liken it to building to an orgasm. You know how during good lovemaking you reach that dazzling point where all thought and all logic are out the window, and you’re going on sheer emotion and the thrill and love of the moment? How nothing, even the satisfaction and completion that you know is just around the bend, is as important as now?

Imagine writing in a medium where your thoughts come faster than you can possibly write them, where the page is sloppy and sopping with creative juice yet driving and focused. You scribble and scribble and get closer and closer to completion, becoming more excited as you go. There is no exact science for it, no formula, just you and your emotions and whatever skills and passion you bring to it.  Just you and the paper and pencil in an embrace and a race to get something exact down inexactly.

If you do it right, you have a decent rough draft. Maybe not as exciting as a climax, but as I said, getting there is more important sometimes than the end result. Even in our computer-driven world, the rough-hewn, unshaven pre-first draft has a certain sexy charm.

That said, I admit that having finished this on my computer after having written ideas longhand is perhaps as fulfilling. After all, putting the pencil to the paper was just foreplay. The feeling of bringing a string of written words to a satistying finish?   Let me just say that, after over 25 years as a nonsmoker, there are times that I feel like lighting up afterwards.

Times like now, for instance.


~ by harryc13 on May 12, 2007.

One Response to “The authority of paper: loving the page in a screened-in world”

  1. Hello Harry,
    Nice essay on the nastalgia of paper and pencil. Brings memories of cutting and pasting with a scissors and role of tape in college. You certainly have a way of bringing a string of words to a satisfying finish. I say go smoke that cigarette.


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