Return of the Gospel of Pen and Paper

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers
August 16, 2013
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I spent a good part of this summer teaching in The Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Workshop, a two-week creative writing program geared towards talented high school students from all over the country, as well as other parts of the world.  Unlike most of the college writing classes I teach—where most of our class times are spent talking about how to write, discussing the writings of others, and critiquing student writings—the curriculum of the Young Writers’ Workshop revolves around the actual act of writing during class sessions, asking everyone to produce a piece or work—or at least the foundations of one—on the spot.  Instructors are not exempt from this requirement.   We teachers respond to the same prompts as our students.  A slave to my solitary writing habits, I found this requirement a real challenge, especially in the first days.  I’m not used to sharing anything I’ve written until it’s already marinated on my hard drive for quite some time.

Unlike high school, perhaps, our Young Writers’ Workshop doesn’t have a lot of rules.  However, the program demands that students leave their computers at home or in their dorms. All classroom writing is done by hand.

For a lot of writers out there, this rule seems obvious.  There’s a holiness to paper and pen that you can’t reproduce with a computer screen and keyboard.   Real writers always write their first drafts by hand, right?

But I have to admit: this summer marks the first time I’d written any drafts by hand since, I don’t know, maybe childhood.  I was born in the mid-eighties to a father who studied computer science.  There’s been some sort of personal computer in my home since I was six years old.

While I keep a notebook—mostly for writing down half-thought-out ideas, or snippets of language I hear around me—composing an actual draft of anything in hard copy feels forced and antiquated.  My handwriting is terrible. My letters are inconsistent. (As a child, my mom used to sometimes erase what I’d written for my homework, and make me write it again.)  For a poet, the physical size and shape and consistency of words actually matters to me.  How I am to know if those two lines are of similar length unless I see the lines typed?  What if I come back later and can’t read what I’ve written?  Moreover, the rate at which I change my mind about what I’ve just put down—to the tune of oh, that’s predictable, or oh, that is definitely a cliché—is fast enough to need that delete button and blinking cursor.  Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have any principled objection to writing by hand.  It’s just that for the most part, I’ve forgotten how to make language come out of a pen.

So, this summer, faced with the (actual, physical, paper) page and a series of pens, it was almost as if I’d forgotten how to put a sentence together.   Talk about writer’s block.  For the first week or two, I could not produce much of anything.  Taking the advice I gave to my students, I told myself, just keep writing nonsense until something starts to emerge.  Free-writing is the oldest trick in the book, one that I’d sort of stopped believing in.


(Pictured: My personal notebook, filled with nonsense, cross-outs, and, just maybe, a first draft?)

But what I’d forgotten is the way that the scratch of pen to paper can bring out those images and words that you really weren’t expecting.  My train of thoughts became wildly associative.  And the poems I began to produce, for better or worse, seem markedly different from what I usually write.  Less polished? Definitely.  Fragmented? Yes.  More surprising, in a good way? Perhaps.

Though I’ll never give up my computer altogether—I still find it easier to compose drafts, even first drafts, from clicks on a keyboard—I suppose the pen and paper has found its way back into my life.  For now, I am trying to at least begin my writing sessions by dragging my inky hand across the notebook, and, as I plod along, seeing what might leap out from the page.



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