Monday, May 3, 2010

Substrate


I have not written anything on paper in over a month. Unless you count grocery lists. This is frightening to me, to say the least. I haven't been in school for months now, and I have actually run out of lined paper. As I say it "out loud" it seems completely unbelievable that such a thing could happen.

I work at an office desk, typing on a computer all day. I whip up undisciplined blog entries with the aid of half-assed internet research when I stop to take a short lunch break. My work environment, or, I could say with Marx in mind, my "material conditions" are shaping how I read text, write arguments, and communicate with people.

At school we sit at school desks or at tables shared with other students, scribbling on spiral notebooks. Or we hide in the library with a pile of books, and take notes in a comfortable corner. Time sort of stops in the classroom. We take no notice of time in the library. It's hard not to notice the time on the computer screen. When we use paper, we take our time.

An image just came to mind, of a thoughtful student tapping her lips or chin with the top of her pen, mentally jabbing her ideas into a shape before the pen can record the words precipitating from the brain-storm. (There! I found one for the picture at the top.) Oh, the fruitful pause during the writing on paper! Sometimes a pause happens at the keyboard. But most often it is a nervous, rapid finger-tapping without typing, as if the fingers can find the right keys before the mind can articulate anything worth saying. It is a frustrating pause, not much relieved by resumed cursor pushing. The paper pause is an elating pause of anticipation (and work), sometimes wholly satisfying by its inky outcome.

The ease of editing we find on our desktop machines can also make our writing less immediate, and therefore less satisfying. Of course we all revise, despite what some writers want others to think, but revision comes so easily on the screen that we are not much challenged to write a good sentence or to complete a thought on the first round of keyboarding. We can edit on the fly, and we do. We can look at a paragraph, quickly, before moving onto the next, and change out some words or re-order a sentence. We don't do this to our solid substrate prose. It is indelible, for the moment, and while a word might have to be scrawled out here and there for the sake of grammar or using proper vocabulary, we do not nit-pick the chicken scratch until it gets on-screen, or we mentally edit on the fly as we transcribe it for digital consumption. Our lack of a biologically built in copy-and-paste function forces us to let out of place sentences be, but it also keeps us from jumping into the middle of a paragraph to work on it, leaving stray words behind or forgetting to correct our tenses. The ease of editing, pasting, highlighting and deleting here, on Blogger for instance, leads to carelessness.

A final advantage (there are more, but I've written on this a little before, so I'll keep it short) to writing on paper is our physical connection to it. The paper notepad can be cradled, covered, ripped apart, divided into sections, used sideways, marked with any number of personal symbols to help us make sense of differently angled scrawlings, or even held tightly to the chest, through all the mental acrobatics, anguish, and fierce productivity it helped spark. Plus, it catches a falling head bound for a cold desk with a warm and polite thud. A similarly close and physical relationship with a computer screen is probably impossible, and if made possible by touch screens, AI, or some other technology, it would merely be fetishistic. Paper, like us, comes from the earth and, thin as it is, lives in our familiar set of four dimensions. It gets us.

I wrote a little on typewriters earlier this year since I have a couple of them. They do use my favorite physical substrate, but not in the same way. Typewriters still have keys. The pen is as important as the paper in making the connection from thought to word to expression (milky pun intended) -- our nascent, fluidy mind blobs are channeled through our dominant hand, itself something over which we have an amazing amount of control, and concentrated into a single, flourishing, fluid ink line at the tip of a writing implement. (I'm fond of thinking of ink as a bodily fluid, and thinking of the ink of men and women as different kinds of fluids. Men's ink is often compared to blood. Cixous calls ours white ink --like milk. Men's takes of their central systems and perpetuates a line. Ours flows as needed, and nourishes. More on that another time!) Artists who go from brush to computer stylus tablet probably feel the contrast between digital and non-digital creating more than writers toggling between pen and keyboard, but just think of it! All ten fingers, some smarter than the others, spread out according to a system of keys arranged for frequency of use (in someone's English), the non-dominant, probably somewhat spastic, hand doing as much work as the other, the brain's control center split in two, the screen not registering any effect from a key typed more softly or with more force. And you can't use the damn margins.

I know almost all of what we read is in type. But some of it is transcribed to type or merely typeset, especially anything written before the twentieth century. Whether the text was edited on paper, during transcription by the author, or after it was typed, the initial creation of the paper piece, the manuscript we can call it, whether it is grand or not, owes much to the medium of choice. The process, the action of writing, seems to happen most freely and most effectively when it happens "in real life," that is, along the physical, visceral channel that opens up (not without occasional clogging) between the mind, the hand, the pen and its ink, and the awaiting substrate.

4 comments:

  1. Just yesterday I was thinking that I would like to have a desk where I could write on paper. You are right how different it is. It seems like every desk only has room for a computer and a keyboard, so writing on a piece of paper would be difficult, and seem strange when you've got a keyboard sitting right in front of you.

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  2. Keeping'em separated is definitely helpful! I have an old desk, my grandmother's, in my tiny office at home, and while the typewriter lives on it, I push that to the side and have plenty of paper-writing and open-book room. I never allow my laptop onto that desk, or even into that room! I type in the living room or even at the kitchen table, but I no longer allow the beast into my haven of letters.

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  3. I wish I had a typewriter. All I've got is my laptop. I don't know, I've always enjoyed handwriting things first. Nobody believes me when I say there's something about "feeling" the words as you write them.

    I have a chair I write in. I should have a desk, but I have that uniquely writers compulsion to stack all kinds of drafts and spirals on any clean surface.

    I honestly felt like this entry was geared toward me. I was nodding the whole time I read it. It has been such a long while since I've written anything on loose leaf paper. I have all kinds of notes scribbled on post-its and index cards, even some blank computer paper. Yet it's not the same as filling out a spiral with a story or stories.

    I'm so looking forward to a break when I can finally pick up the pen again.

    By the way, that last sentence: priceless.

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  4. Maybe you should update this blog more often?

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