“No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil.”
– Virginia Woolf
Liam, our four-year old Australian grandson, recently sent us his first handwritten thank-you note. He used a bright orange crayon on a green card. The letters weren’t all the same size, some were backward, and his name took up most of the page. My wife Jody and I laughed, and we immediately put the note on the refrigerator door.
The card eventually took me back in time to when I first wrote someone. I’m pretty sure it was to my Aunt Dolly after she gave me a coloring book for one of my early birthdays. The gift included a basic box of primary colors. I cannot recall whether I chose orange, but I selected one of those crayons to write her a thank-you note in return. Over sixty-five years later, I can still see myself filling in the colors for the zoo animals that were in the book. I probably gave monkeys a purple coat, the ostrich green leggings, the lion a bright yellow mane, and the crocodile some mix of red and black, especially red for its mouth.
I never wondered at that time where those sticks of color came from, how they were made, and why it was so much fun to draw with them. I also didn’t wonder if these crayons were the best devices to write with. In a few years, though, I realized crayons did not do what I wanted them to do. Thus began my climb up the ladder from crayons to pencils, and eventually to pens, typewriters, and finally word processors. Today I still wonder what the best devices are. My grandson’s crayon-colored note raised questions about how I write today. If I have learned anything about writing, I certainly grasp how difficult it is. Difficulty certainly doesn’t just mean choosing chalk over pencil, or typewriter over word processor. I’m still groping with what makes the craft so difficult. Wherever the difficulty lies, I do know that my writing life now depends primarily on a computer that obeys my commands and makes my life easier . . . most of the time. I am now rethinking my dependence. There is no magic in the computer. The magic is in the writer. Please come along on my excursion into where I’m coming from and where I think I’m going.
As a thirteen-year-old back in 1957, I penned a junior high school essay on the origins of writing from charcoal cave drawings to typewriters. I went into the exercise against my will, whining and complaining that my best buddy Gary had somehow snatched the prize topic – How Has Baseball Affected Your Life? – out from under me. If my memory serves me right, I felt a bit silly presenting the history of pencils and crayons in a couple of paragraphs. No robust thirteen-year-old boy I knew wanted to find himself again with the smell of crayons on his hands. I wanted the aroma of mink oil, the very essence we used to soften our new baseball gloves. But off I marched every afternoon to the school library to discover whatever was available on how cave men drew on grotto walls, how butchers used crude markers in abattoirs to guide them as they carved out their steaks, how Leonardo had a stash of cylindrical pigment sticks that none of his rivals could pull out of their smock pockets. I can imagine saying to myself, “Hey, this is getting interesting.”
My teacher, Ms. Roe, expected lots of details so I went to great lengths to make sure my reader knew all about crayons and how clever people came up with ideas about adding a range of pigments to wax cylinders. When I read my paper to the class, I especially enjoyed talking about grease pencils since I stressed how messy they are in hot weather when they soften or even melt in your hand. I made up something about watercolor crayons, sometimes called water-soluble crayons, because I had never seen one. I managed to fill several pages and concluded with some statements I thought would please Ms. Roe. Crayons are blunt so kids can’t poke sharp points in one another, and if you eat them they won’t poison you. The threat of toxic substances didn’t worry us as much then as it does not. She was wise to my tricks, though, and simply frowned in her way of making her thick eyebrows meld into one big dark line on her forehead. She gave me a curt thank-you and called on Gary to give us all the details of how poor Haitians toiled in sweatshops to wrap the innards of baseballs. Even the artists in the class preferred the baseball story to my account of the origin of all those colors we enjoyed.
Ms. Roe required that the essay be a research paper, a concept that was a bit vague to me and most of my fellow thirteen-year-old investigators. Without much experience researching much beyond my baseball cards, I plunged ahead and included the history of the crayon and fudged a bit by quoting some source that said the crayon’s lineage is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, my junior-high self spent hours in the library sifting through many books and absorbing the history and evolution of pencils and crayons. The process was slow, but I found myself slowly growing to like it. For the first time I found myself soaking up information and comprehending what I read. Unfortunately, I focused on gathering a scad of facts, but failed to organize the jumble into something that made sense and had a point. The important stuff got lumped in with the trivia. I failed to give life or color to my story.
The essay might not have been stellar, but it had drama. My research led me to an eureka moment – a major crayon company was in Sandusky, Ohio, some seventy miles from my home. I convinced my father to take me on a road trip to visit this facility. Little did I know at the time, but I was going to make a big discovery. I was about to stumble into the world of primary sources. No longer would I be tethered to secondary reports found in books. Even though I didn’t recognize the importance of the moment at the time, I now recognize it as a pivotal point in my early scholarly life.
My father was a bit dumbfounded at first about visiting a crayon factory, but went along with the idea. In preparing for the trip, I learned that a Mr. Charles A. Bowley, who ran a stationary business in Massachusetts in the early twentieth century, partnered up with American Crayon in 1902 to produce a new kind of crayon that was inexpensive and easy to use. As cohorts, they created a full-blown catalog of crayon offerings. Luckily for me, Sandusky is a small town in northern Ohio along Lake Erie. My father liked to go to nearby Cedar Point to fish, so he saw an opportunity to enjoy himself while I spent time at the crayon company. Much to my delight, the company offered regular tours.
I hit pay dirt. The lady leading the tour wore a bright gold ochre colored dress right out of the crayola box. She piled her jet-black hair high up on her head. She was hard to miss. She surprised us all by immediately going into a cheer for the company’s highly recognizable brand Crayola Gold Medal line in the familiar yellow boxes. She sang out “Hurrah for Gold Medal, Hurrah, Hurrah!” a couple of times before coaxing all of us to join in. As a kid, I thought all the commotion was funny, although a bit strange. I was walking through time and enjoying learning about places and things I had never heard of before. The tour guide told me and the rest of the visiting group that the company was already known for its chalk crayons in the late 1890s, but they spread out to the wax crayon market in 1902. Their boxes of crayons included a number of packages with crayons ranging from seven to fourteen colors. One specialty box, The American Banner, included a pencil/crayon sharpener. So many colors to choose from. That pencil sharpener was a deal closer for me.
My head was swimming with so many facts I could barely take all the stories in. I worked hard on that paper and was crestfallen only to received a B on it. Ms. Roe fooled me with a positive but ambiguous notation about halfway through the paper. She wrote a big plus sign in the margin when I noted that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice had a reference to crayons. “Well done!” On the last page, though, she wrote her overall comments and slashed a big red B across the page. I remember reading that all the facts were good, but the paper lacked organization. As I recall, she gave me tepid praise but criticized my rambling style and wrote that my mind seemed to be wandering all over the page. When I think about her comments now, I realize she probably was unfamiliar with Montaigne.
In thumbing through material today, I discovered that the American Crayon Company factory shut down in the early 1990s. Afterward, the factory sat vacant for a number of years. I read this news as though I had just received a message that an old friend I hadn’t seen for years had died. The owners made various efforts to sell the place or find someone to tear it down, but the enormity of the job and the expense always caused the deals to fall through. Homeless people set up households in the dilapidated old red building. Stories ran in the local newspaper lamenting the ruin of the structure, calling it a huge fire hazard. As I read the story, I could see my stylish tour guide and critical teacher growing older along with building, becoming senile, skin discolored, arthritic and pushing walkers. This wreck of a building, these shells of people, were all that was left of the delightful old place, its guide, and Ms. Roe, the teacher who introduced me to disappointment when I was thirteen years old. I was surprised to realize that the memory of the tour and the big red B on my school project had made such an imprint on me. All of a sudden, that B was out of its hiding place, and I was wearing it as though it were my own personal scarlet letter.
Much to my delight, I also read how Ben Baker, the grandson of one of the company’s last engineers, was able to salvage some of the timbers from the company before the wreckers finally demolished the facility a few years ago. Baker’s grandfather, Irvin, was one of the engineers who kept the company’s machinery operating in the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t recall ever meeting him, but I would have loved hanging out with him. The machines dated back to the early 1900s and were quite intricate. Irvin’s maintenance department had to know exactly how they functioned and how to fix them. Reading about what these men did, I found I was admiring them all over again through the vantage point of time. I even entertained the idea that had I been old enough at the time I would have readily volunteered to join their team.
When I read the story, I was once again on the tour with the vibrant guide leading the cheers. All this sounds corny today, but people believed the hoopla then and joined the cheerleaders. I could once again see the station where the machines made another product, the chalk pencil, which we used on blackboards. These machines were Irvin’s specialty. The pencils consisted of a thin cylinder of chalk with many layers of paper wrapped around it. A string ran along the chalk. When the chalk began to run out, all we kids had to do was tear the paper along a perforation and expose more chalk. The designers intended us to peel off just what we needed, but we couldn’t stop ourselves in school and always loved tearing the paper entirely off. Presto, we armed ourselves with long sticks of color. Unaware of our school-boy mischief, the tour guide smiled broadly and gave us all some samples.
I realize now how attached I still am to that old building, despite only being in it once. In its immensity, I discovered that writing is one way of self-making. I learned a way to nurture myself by compiling my notes and writing my essay. As Philip Lopate would say, my paper was my laboratory, my mirror, my brainstorming tool, my icebreaker, my wailing wall, my jump-start cable, my snooping device. It was ultimately a post card to myself that traveled through time over and over only to land in my inbox afresh almost every day. I look back over the years and see those heavy fork lifts wearing out the wooden flooring, forcing maintenance crews to bolt large steel “diamond plates” over the holes. I remembered my initial sense of cowardice when I was a bit tentative stepping onto them. I saw first reflections in me of empathy for blue-collar workers when I witnessed workers painting the miles of asbestos-wrapped pipes to keep the dangerous fiber contained. I wanted to be one of the men who climbed rickety ladders to the coal elevator above the boiler room to service the machinery that kept the coal moving and the boiler fired.
My essay might well have had clumsy, even stupid, sentences in it, but it was my portal into maturity. It contained my first lines of storytelling. It might have been poorly organized, full of fragments, incomplete meditations, or failed stories, but it allowed me to find a shape to define myself. Because of it, I remember one lady in particular. Her name was Minnie, according to her name badge. I remember her name because she resembled our next-door neighbor. She ran one of the machines that packaged colored crayons into boxes. She smiled at us as she explained how she had to grab big handfuls of each color of the crayons and load them into the hopper that fed them down into the packaging boxes. She let me grab a bunch and toss them into the hopper. I was thrilled. She told us that her brother worked in what was called the lead plant, where the lead, actually graphite, pencils were made under the famous Dixon Ticonderoga brand. I don’t recall seeing that part of the factory. At the end of the day, we all walked out with a bag of various boxed crayons and pencils.
When my dad picked me up outside the front doors, I had trouble explaining all I had seen. The birth of those crayons from the machines that melted the wax, to the station that added the colors, to the end of the hopper where the crayons were boxed was too complicated for me to explain thoroughly. All I knew was that the crayons took a great journey from that old plant to another box wrapped in gift paper and entwined in red ribbon. All we usually had around the house were the company’s yellow Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils. My aunt undoubtedly used one to write me a note that she taped to the ribbon.
After reading about crayons today, I found myself again interested in the topic. I zipped from computer link to link and was entertained at all I was learning. Who knew how interesting the manufacture of crayons could be? I was not just learning about crayons, but how to write about them in a fresh way. I remember listening intently once to an engineer talk about dry-cell batteries. No one dozed off. This guy proved the old adage that it’s not what you say but the way that you say it. If only some of the books and essays I’ve been reading were as much fun. Before long I was asking my wife question after question. Did you know that the word crayon dates to 1644 and comes from the word chalk and the Latin word creta (earth), or that that the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and even indigenous people in the Philippines used crayon-like color cylinders? Did you know that the earliest peoples figured out how to combine a form of wax with pigment to make cave scratchings? I felt like a kid again opening drawer after drawer to find unexpected treasures.
When I wrote my original essay, I was stuck with pencil and paper. I had to lug down books from the shelves. With a little less effort this time around, I found the same stories on my computer. At first, I was glad I had a computer now, despite its occasional contrariness. But I was having doubts about this love affair. It gave me bits and pieces but not a whole. My computer was making research all too easy. I was digging in soft ground to unearth a ton of facts. Something was beginning to bother me. With the computer, I wasn’t really working all that hard. All I was doing was scratching the surface, chasing back and forth between links. I could organize more effectively today, but I wasn’t much more ahead now than I was as a thirteen-year-old in making sense of everything I unearthed in the library. The computer let me write faster, but not necessarily better.
I pause as I remember I did more as a boy than just pour through library books. What was different between 1957 and 2016? After some soul searching, I think the answer is that I was more involved then, more tactile. I saw where men and women made crayons. I had my hands on those crayons and big dusty books. I wrote my notes with a pencil or pen. I felt my hand get tired. I forced myself to erase and blot out what I had written. I wasn’t always successful, but my pencil was a better tool then in many ways than my computer is today, because it slowed me down and forced me to think harder about what marks I wanted it to make. I place my fingers on a keyboard now and they seem to have their own minds, their own power to sometimes say what they, not I, want to say.
When I grew out of crayons and graduated to pencils, I was impressed by the thin lines they made and how I could control the strokes better than with crayons. They lacked personality, though, and only came in degrees of how dark a line they could make. Ours always had a number 2 printed on them. Once I tried to write with the extra soft number 1 but didn’t like the light mark it left. I could never find the medium 2 1/2 and avoided the hard 3 and extra hard 4s which always seemed to smudge for me.
During my university days, my interest in pencils took a new turn. With a couple of American Lit classes under my belt, I thought of myself as a transcendentalist and went to Concord to visit Henry David Thoreau’s birthplace at the Wheeler-Minot Farmhouse. I paid my respects at his grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and, of course, skipped stones on Walden Pond. I knew Thoreau came from a family that manufactured pencils. I imagined him using one of his family’s pencils to write about his patch of beans. I wondered if he supplied Emerson with a never- ending supply of pencils. Business thrived. Everyone was using pencils.
When I wandered about Concord, I could well visualize Henry and his brother John working in their father’s pencil factory. The Thoreau family pencils, produced behind the family house on Main Street, were generally recognized as America’s best pencils, largely because of Henry’s research into German pencil-making techniques. Thoreau made significant technological innovations, including figuring out a way to inject lead directly into the hollowed-out pencil. Up until then, pencil makers had to cut the wood in half, fill it, and then glue it back together. Henry also invented a machine that produced an unusually fine grind of graphite. I loved Thoreau, or Hank the Crank as one of my professors called him, for his technical skills as well as his writing. What I found amusing, though,was that Thoreau was also guilty of taking the pencil for granted and of overlooking its importance. When he made his famous list of essential supplies for a twelve-day excursion into the Maine woods, he neglected to mention the very object he used to record the list.
As a school kid, pencils were my main writing tools. I had an algebra teacher who used to pick up pencils the students dropped in hallways. He always had a box of them in his class and made students who hadn’t done their homework sharpen them. Most of these pencils still sported erasers or portions of erasers. I liked to think of these abandoned pencils as a gang of rogues who wore dirty caps and were always asking, “You lookin’ at somethin’?” We never used ballpoint pens in any classes then, just pencils. We wrote in composition booklets. Teachers demanded legibility. They handed out low marks if we didn’t stay on the lines. We received high marks for neatness and for not making a mess. Our writing took time and thought. Of course, we took the exercises for granted. We didn’t have an option and no idea of what the future would bring. As I sit at my computer keyboard today, I marvel at what it can do. As a kid, I didn’t have any pencils that could cut and paste or make entire passages disappear without a trace with a simple delete.
Ballpoint pens were always problematic for me and still are. When I first started using them, they were dangerous. Put one in your pocket and you had a good chance of ending up with a big ink stain on your shirt. We had the original models that usually wrote only in blue. The points were thick so no fine lines were possible. Of course, they didn’t come with erasers. I used to imagine medieval monks sitting in poorly lighted and cold scriptoriums copying manuscripts. What did they do when they wrote something wrong with their early stylus points? How did they blot out their mistakes without ruining rare and expensive vellum? No white-out was available. My composition book was always a mess, and I did have white-out. The ink from one page always stained the adjoining leaves and sometimes made them stick together. I would cross out mistakes or smear some white goop over lines that went wrong. My hand often picked up strains from the ink that wicked up from the leaky pens. I can only imagine literary men and women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dipping their quill nibs into small ink pots. I’ve made a few quill pens, and it’s not easy to cut the calamus – or end of the quill – exactly right. Get it wrong and the ink won’t flow or flows too quickly. My quill set was delicate, and expensive ink spilled easily. Nothing like writing by candlelight, dipping a quill’s worth of letters before refilling, all the time leaking on the page when paper was rare and treasured.
In my mind’s eye, I imagine Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley immersing the tip of her quill into its well as she shivers and tries to steady her hand to write the story of Frankenstein. I can see her cooped up with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley along with Lord Byron and Mary’s half-sister Jane Clairmont near Geneva in the summer of 1816. The setting must have been less than cozy. That summer was the one that never happened because of climate change caused the previous year by the massive explosion of the Indonesian volcano Mt. Tambora. Nonstop cold rain poured on the Shelleys, Byron, Jane and another guest, John Polidori that summer. From my perch in today’s world, I have to stretch my imagination quite a distance to fathom five avant-garde and rebellious young people, all in their twenties, trapped indoors for days on end. No e-mail or Twitter accounts to entertain them. What better idea to keep from going mad than for Byron to convince everyone to write a horror story? As I sit comfortably in front of my computer in a warm and well-lighted room today, I also shiver just imagining them trying to compose anything with the tools of that time under such circumstances.
In thinking of crude writing pens, poor lighting, and miserable weather, I remembered there were few options other than pencil or pen when I was in Vietnam in 1968 and wanted to write home. Paper was scarce, pens hard to come by, and lighting miserable. One of the best gifts to arrive was a box of pens, a sheaf of paper, and a plain clipboard that turned out to be invaluable. It gave me a writing surface. Silly as it might sound, the clipboard was my most faithful companion. Unfortunately, I had one other problem that I couldn’t fix and that frustrated me more than anything else. Horrific handwriting.
Despite my grade school and junior-high calligraphy classes, my handwriting was nearly indecipherable. My poor sainted mother almost lost her eyesight trying to figure out what I was trying to say. When I was in high school, she encouraged me to learn to type. I have her to thank for pretty good typing skills today. I was one of only two boys in the class. I took a lot of ribbing from the guys and the gals who thought of typing as something only girls did. I can still see myself in Ms. Green’s class sitting at my big Remington learning the strange QWERTY layout on the keyboard. I never got very good with the numbers, but seemed to pick up on the letters quickly.
Ms. Green loved her typewriters and she made sure we knew about their history, too. As I quickly learned, the earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of twenty-eight keys. The inventors assumed this arrangement was the most efficient configuration. After all, anyone who used the keyboard would know immediately where to find each letter. The guys who set up the layout were hoping to reduce hunting in order to speed up pecking. Why change things? This is where the origin of the QWERTY layout gets a little foggy. Even Ms. Green wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. The popular theory goes that technicians had to redesign the keyboard because of so many mechanical failings. If a user quickly typed a succession of letters whose type bars were too near each other, the delicate machinery would jam. Thus, common sequences of letters such as th or he ended up separated. Ignoring any inconvenient details, Ms. Green smilingly dismissed the confusion and simply summarized the endeavor. “The modern keyboard was born.” By this time, she was losing me, especially since I was paying more attention to the alluring Patty who sat in the row beside me. I also discovered a major flaw in the typewriter, although I had no way of realizing the full significance of my revelation at the time. Since we were years before e-mail, I was unable to show off my typing skills by sending teasing messages to this adolescent beauty. Technology was advancing, but the fine art of flirtation wasn’t keeping up.
Like most boys, I loved tinkering with contraptions, inevitably taking them apart and then trying to figure out how to put them back together again. Typewriters with their many moving parts fascinated me. When the repairman showed up every couple of weeks, I liked to watch what he did, what kind of tools he used, how he straightened any bent type bars, cleaned the platen, and oiled the carriage return. His hands were always dirty with grease and typewriter ribbon stains. His name was Ralph. I can still see his name embroidered on his work shirt. Ms. Green was a small woman whose nails were always short and hands clean. Ralph was heavy and usually needed a shave. They were a odd-matched pair but seemed to get along and enjoy one another’s company. Ms. Green often stopped the class to let Ralph explain what he was doing. Under his tutelage, I became adept at changing ribbons, a skill I valued.
At the end of the school year, my alma mater upgraded the typewriters and let the students buy the old Remingtons at a great price. I nipped the one I used in the class and had it for many years before it finally wore out and I couldn’t find parts any longer. I went for years afterward without a typewriter before I found an Olympia model in a second-hand store for about $25. It has a metal plate on the back that reads,
Olympia Werke AG
Made in Western Germany
Inter-continental Trading Corporation
90 West St.
New York 6, N.Y.
There is no date. It has a strong carriage return that clicks when you advance it and go to the next line. It’s gray and heavy and sits on a desk in my basement den. I have a fresh ribbon in it and a sheet of paper that reads, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” I really must use it more.
Looking back on the time of my young- and mid-adulthood, I see few innovations that separated most of us from how Mary Shelley wrote. Just turning on the lamp on my desk right now makes me appreciate the humble electric light bulb. When power goes out at my rural home, I seek flashlights or even candles just to keep from stumbling over furniture, but never to read or to write. Fortunately, we all now live in the modern era, and no one has to rely on feather quills, pencils, ball point or roller pens, or typewriters to scratch out our thoughts. All of a sudden, not all that long ago, a new kind of typewriter appeared. The neologism word processor entered our lexicon and everything changed, some said for the good. Others still choose to wait and see.
For the past twenty-five years I’ve mostly used the computer to write just about everything. Occasionally, I use a notebook and pen and pencil to take notes or jot down some thoughts. Years ago, I didn’t believe I could think on a computer, just as I thought earlier that I couldn’t compose on a typewriter. I’m still curious how other writers, especially older ones, organize their material. At one time most people used a pencil or pen to write their drafts, although some writers, especially those coming from a journalism background, felt at home behind a typewriter keyboard. H. L. Mencken was required reading in my journalism classes in the mid 1960s. I think most of us had an image in our minds of a particularly unlikeable curmudgeon with rolled-up sleeves, cigar in mouth, pecking away at an old typewriter. One professor who still stands out to me was John Blakely. He loved Mencken and used to read his columns and essays aloud in class. “Ladies and gentlemen, can’t you just hear the melody? This is literature!”
I wondered if I were missing something. Could the typewriter really make magic? Could you coax a melody out of a crayon? Pencils were slow and often wrote the wrong words or got things in the wrong place. Pens were messy and didn’t tolerate mistakes. Sticks of graphite or ink wore your hand out.
As I began to look for alternative ways of writing, I discovered Truman Capote. He supposedly wrote supine, with a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in another. In a 1957 Paris Review interview he said, “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
Vladimir Nabokov loved index cards. He sketched out most of his novels on handy 3 x 5 inch cards, which he would paper-clip and store in slim boxes. He once said, “My schedule is flexible, but I am rather particular about my instruments – lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers.”
Everyone has their own method. Hemingway typed standing up. He bragged that he only typed five-hundred words a day max, usually in the morning to avoid the heat. I read somewhere that he told F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I write one page of masterpiece and ninety-nine pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the waste basket.” Tracey Kidder wrote a great book about computers entitled A Truck Full of Money. In it, he might not have found a better way of writing, but he did discover a method of coping with some of life’s problems. “Upstairs, all the emotions of a big family were swirling around – arguments, many competing sorrows – and there was nothing he could do up there to change what worried and upset him. But he could always figure out how to tell the computer to do what he wanted, and it didn’t argue back or ignore him.”
I now work almost all the time on a computer, but I’ve been thinking about a trial separation. The love affair is waning. Sure, it’s easy to make changes on a computer, cut and paste material to what you think is a better spot in your essay, check spelling, and print copies. But unlike Kidder’s computer, mine is contrary and does indeed sometimes talk back or ignore me. With the computer, I suspect now as I did earlier that there’s a false sense of ease, of getting something right too quickly. I like to sneak up on things rather than charge down from a hill to confront them. I also don’t like a production schedule. I can meet deadlines, but what’s the point in the end? I’m beginning to appreciate the slow lane. A friend recently told me she uses a fountain pen. She finds that the letters slow down, because the ink goes on the page differently. There is also the pause needed to clean the nib, fill the pen, begin again. She’s as illegible as I am and finds she cannot read what she’s written unless she puts much time and effort into the process. As a woodworker and furniture maker, I know the quality of what I do suffers if I rush the job or cut corners. I have a homemade sign in my office with the following quote from Dr. Johnson, “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
I started this essay using a sharp yellow Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2 pencil and a yellow legal pad. As I began, I smiled when I thought of Virginia Woolf’s shopkeeper who called out roughly to his wife in the back room, “Where d’yer keep the pencils?” My hand tired at the first couple of pages, so I had to stop and go to my Nabokovian 3 x 5 cards to collate my notes. My mind was faster than my fingers, though, and I often frustrated myself trying to use my own version of shorthand to write faster. I was attempting to keep my thoughts from wandering too far off the page. I felt as though I were putting my fingers and wrist through calisthenics to build up strength and endurance. The amounts of time I could write without a break started to lengthen. But the computer coquette was always hanging around trying to tempt me to come back to her. I wanted to cheat at times, almost as though I were on a diet that I craved to violate. I needed a tasty cookie. If only I could go to the keyboard for this one passage, maybe I could find a more felicitous string of words to express my thoughts. If only I could click once and check the computer’s dictionary to see if I had the right word. I liked my dictionaries, but at times they were too demanding. I just didn’t want to get up, cross the room, open the right volume of the big bound dictionary set, and thumb through the pages until I found the correct entry. The effort could be a pain. And the print was always so small.
During one of my recent breaks, I discovered why I suspected the computer was not the perfect writing tool. I was reading an obituary of the poet Lucia Perillo that said she was only fifty-eight when she died. She had suffered from multiple sclerosis for nearly thirty years. In an interview with Publishers Weekly in March of this year, she said her routine had changed because her caregivers’ schedules had changed. Now she was working on poems about distraction. She was also trying to force herself to work on a typewriter. “I’ve been typing on a computer for years, but it really adds editing into the creative process too early.”
Aha, I said, that’s the issue I’ve been grappling with but couldn’t pin down.
On my trip from crayon to pencil to pen to typewriter to computer and then back again to pencil, I visited a factory in Sandusky, Ohio, rubbed elbows with a typewriter repair man in Columbus, traveled to Concord to pay homage to Thoreau, and ended in the Blue Ridge Mac store in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to buy my desktop and laptop Macs. I told myself many stories along the way and peeked into a few windows to see how other people live and work. Those people included my younger as well as current self. To steal from Virginia Woolf again, I gave myself “the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.” Like Virginia, I picked up snippets, a word in passing, a chance phrase muttered along the way by someone however deeply or slightly immersed in the writing trade. What I learned on my journey was to slow down, let my mind wander over the topic, and recognize that we are all complex beings trying to describe complexity in person and place. I love learning from others, but eventually I have to have my own voice and follow my own notions.
Most importantly, I don’t want to get out ahead of myself and add another layer of editing by depending too heavily on my word processor in the creative process. So I’m back to the pencil and yellow pad as my starting point. I’m not a Luddite. I feel comfortable composing on the computer. But I also want to move more slowly, deliberate over my words, give cautious rein to my cadences, and allow music into my rhythm. I will come back to the word processor eventually, but we will rekindle our courtship slowly. I once saw a pencil encased in a small box with a glass front. It was attached to the wall in a computer work center. The sign underneath read, “In case of emergency, break glass, remove pencil, turn to eraser cap, fix problem.” At the end of “Street Haunting,” Virginia says, “And here – let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence – is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.”