The value of putting pen to paper

A dear friend of mine recently bought me a present for my birthday. When she told me that she had bought me a present I protested. I certainly wasn't expecting a present. "It's nothing big," she explained, "it's not a big deal."

When we finally connected and she gave me my present, she pointed to a small, carefully wrapped package. As I opened it I saw a cellophane-wrapped bundle of three small journals. "Because you're going to be a writer," she said, "and you need to write on paper, because computers don't have souls."

This really hit me, both for how simple and thoughtful a gesture it was (which was not surprising, coming from her) but also because of how profound and important the idea really was, yet how little thought we give it.

I had actually been thinking about this in the days preceding, the idea there was something significant about the physical act of writing, of crafting characters with a pen on paper, that was somehow fundamentally different that the more pervasive practice of typing on keyboard. I had been flipping through old paper journals I had kept, reminiscing. I had been Googling articles on writing in paper versus electronic journals and the linked articles about various studies concerning the benefits of writing on paper. I had also taken a trip to the bookstore where I bought a book on the tradition of letter writing and a pair of simple recycled paper notebooks. After all this, and some humming and hawing, I still wasn't convinced one way or the other. As is common for me, I was paralyzed between two seemingly equally enticing options, with no clear choice.

One of the things that is challenging for me is that, while I see the beauty and can imagine the benefits of writing longhand on paper, I have long been a convert to the computer and word processing. The idea of writing a term paper or organizing research with paper files and cue cards is something I can barely comprehend, let alone embrace. Indeed, one of my present life projects is engaging to get my life to be as paperless as possible. And, as embark on a new phase in my life, having quit my job and with a plan to return to school, I am very conscious of the potential benefits of managing my life in the digital realm.

At the same time, however, this phase of my life is about something entirely different than that to which I am accustomed. Whereas in my previous studies I was very focused on the practical and career implications of what I was studying, now I find myself embarking on another BA (somewhat redundant, no?) to study English with a Creative Writing emphasis (hardly practical, right?). I struggle to justify this decision to others, except to say that, at this point in my life, I need to do something that I WANT to do, that I will (hopefully) LOVE, and that will provide a kind of nourishment that nothing I have done to this point has provided.

So, given that, perhaps it isn't such a bad time to reconsider how I feel and what I think about the merits of the paper journal, or writing on paper more generally. I have a journal that I have written in sporadically since 2004, including a few entries from when I was in the hospital in 2009. I always think that, somehow, writing longhand will result in less clear or coherent writing, that there is value in being able to read over and edit your work. Aside from the fact that editing is probably not a good journalling practice, looking back I am surprised at how thoughtful, comprehensible and clear my entries are. There are, of course, those that turn into more of a repetitive rant than a thoughtful musing, but on the whole that isn't the case.

As I am writing this, I am reminded of a post I read over five years ago (eons in internet time) by Merlin Mann called "Making Friends with Paper (again)." In it he talks about the idea that we should use (and embrace) paper for what it is great at - for thinking, capture, generating ideas - but not for what, as he says, "it famously sucks at," which is storage, retrieval, mixing, repurposing and other such tasks. Writing in a paper journal, I think, is a great creative experience. Finding something you remember some a giant stack of journals from the past decade would not be as great an experience. For the most part, however, that isn't what journals are about. If and when you do go back to journals, it seems to me that you are generally reading them chronologically, like a story. And the idea that someone can't do a keyword search through your journals is, I think, freeing, and makes it easier to write unselfconsciously.

I also wonder whether there isn't something even more fundamentally important about the act of putting pen to paper. I was thinking today of writing as similar to walking, in the sense that today, people go out of their way to exercise where, in the past, going about their daily lives, walking to the store or schools, provided a lot of exercise. We've designed a natural ability to get exercise out of our modern cities. In the same way, I think writing, and the mental state that accompanies it, is an important kind of mentally calming and thinking exercise. Now, people seek that "exercise" through all sorts of classes, programs, apps or activities where, in the past, that type of valuable mental variety, that kind of meditative thinking practice, was provided as a matter of course by the act of writing.

Writing on paper is, I think, also a kind of act of improvisation: Where on a computer you can cut and rearrange words with abandon, when you are writing on paper, unless you intend to frequently rewrite, you almost have to work with what goes down on the page, perhaps altering your original train of thought to accommodate what you've written. And I think it also reinforces writing as a craft, as something to be practiced and perfected, mastering the understanding of language and vocabulary. Unaided by spelling and grammar checkers, it is more important to understand what you want to write and how to write it before you put pen to paper; going back for a rewrite is not a casual decision.

So I think I will embrace my paper journals and my pen for the act of putting my thoughts to paper and processing the thoughts that go through my head each day, and the feelings that flow from my heart. I will still hold on to my MacBook and iPad, however, for writing for publication, for taking notes that I will need to reference and for finding the needle in the proverbial haystack of digital information.

I am, however, very looking forward to rekindling my relationship with paper.