As a graduate student in English, I spend a lot of time reading and writing in front of the computer, poised between notes, books, and laptop, cobbling together semi-coherent ideas and then revising the shit out of them. I used to be a paper and pen girl, and as an undergraduate composed every draft by hand. I wrote in a linear flow, thinking down the page, crossing very little out and letting
the language work itself out sentence by sentence. Pen and paper don’t lend themselves to deletion of poorly written shit: If I wrote a crappy sentence, I shrugged and kept going, just rewrote the sentence right there (or made a note in the margin: This sentence sucks. Rewrite later). With a pen and paper, I got less hung up. I trusted that the revision would come in time, and all bad sentences would die in the Armageddon of the Word Processor.
Back when I composed on paper, before I got to the computer phase of the process, I would flip through the pages in my notebook and draw arrows pointing towards a different organizational structure, code areas that needed stronger transitions, and circle paragraphs that required more evidence. In an act of flagellation and admonishment, I grabbed a red pen and hacked apart my body of text. As I typed things up, I put things back together: filled in the blanks and did all the editing that copy-and-paste makes easier.
This writing process was simultaneously more discrete and more fluid: I started writing in one medium, pulled out my red pen, and then moved on to the typing. Still, the words flowed more easily back then. When it was just me and my notebook, I had more room to play with my own thoughts. I was more focused and more immersed in whatever setting I chose to write. Often, I would sit outside under my favorite tree on campus, amongst cherry blossoms.
Okay—even I can hear how overly romanticized and idyllic that sounds. Writing was still fucking hard then, but I didn’t usually think about power cables and internet access and other things I “needed” in order to write. I didn’t have email notifications and an attention-hungry phone constantly interrupting the flow of my thoughts. More often than not, I simply found a place of shade—or a nice, open space with grass and other people who were far enough away to not annoy me but close enough that I didn’t feel alone. Maybe I’d have some kind of hot beverage (or cold beverage, if it was warm outside), but I didn’t “need” a cup of coffee in order to have the will to live. And I would write. In fact, sometimes I set the alarm on my flip phone because I would get so in the groove that I would write straight through a class, meeting, or social obligation. Writing was hard, but it also felt easy.
I used to write more than just academic stuff—I kept journals filled with more bad poetry than your adolescent angst could possibly comprehend. I don’t journal as much as I used to, now, maybe because I’m in grad school and churning out 15 pages of academic writing a week doesn’t lend itself to “writing for fun.” In fact, academic writing leads me to feel that writing is slowly breaking down my resolve to write.
But the other day I was ruminating on my writing habits and bemoaning myself for not being quite the artsy writer than I once fancied myself. Then I realized: despite the fact that I don’t write as much in a single journal that I constantly carry around, I do write a lot, in a lot of different contexts. For some reason, I feel the writing I do isn’t as real or as fun as the writing I used to do. Now, when I write, I compose in a Word document and flip back and forth between a screen with a blinking cursor willing me to type and a browser window filled with multiple resources of both productive and distracting varieties. Rather than the old days of composing in the same notebook in which I’d been taking notes, journaling, and observing the habits and behaviors of people around me, I create a new file completely distinct from my other projects, sit in some indoor corner of a coffee shop, library, or office, and type. My documents are housed on a laptop, which I often carry with me. But a laptop is clunky, heavy, and along with a laptop one always carries the underlying anxiety that someone will steal
that laptop. With a notebook, I could write anytime and anywhere. If I had two minutes at the bus stop, I could pull out my notebook and jot down a few ideas. If I heard a brilliant quote or someone suggested a resource, I could grab my notebook and write it down. With a laptop, anytime I want to revise my document, there is a machine I need to start to get the writing going. And once the machine has booted up, I have established rituals of checking my email, checking my Facebook, checking my Twitter (for what, I’m not sure). It takes much more time to get writing, and even when I’m actually working on a document, my attention is divided.
I like that notebooks are stitched together along the edges, limned like ideas. I like pages with edges gilded in gold leaf or deckled edges that evoke another time. I like the way that ink shines on the surface and slowly sinks in to stay, like my thoughts solidifying and becoming permanent in that place. Now, instead of myself and the smooth, clean pages of my notebook (pages that can be decorative or utilitarian, each with its own merit), I write with myself, my computer, and the rest of my world.
My writing now always starts in fragments—a host of free-floating signifiers seeking their referents. But as I write (and do all the other things I do while I write), I figure out what it is those fragments are trying to say. All the resources available to me increase the subtlety with which I approach my topics, and they help me understand the audience with which I am trying to connect. My writing is my way out and my way in—I am simultaneously defining myself and my ideas, expressing a way of thinking and seeing that is entirely my own, and inviting others to share it, to relate to it, to understand it. Writing outside of academia (and, who knows, maybe in it, too) is confessional. It must
probe the distinction between the true and the untrue, push through the noise and articulate with new certainty those things that mean something. My world may be more complicated now than it used to be, and I certainly find it more difficult to compose in an organic way. Even as I write this, I have a to-do list running through my mind and a paper I need to finish. It is still in pieces, and I need to arrange them in a way that speaks the truth as I see it. But it’s nice that through that writing has come this writing, and this will inform that, and ultimately I will have two works that tell a story.