By: Noelle Sterne
Engaging the Senses with Paper
Like many other writers, I marvel at today’s electronic wonders. They increase our productivity, speed of creation, revisions, and neatness. But . . . nothing replaces paper. Never to be taken for granted, never to be used profligately, never to be wasted, it’s a holy receptacle for the words to flow through.
I’ve often struggled with paper—its dread blank whiteness reprimands and I squirm, empty-minded, watching the minutes of my writing session evaporate. But on good days, paper invites expansively; it’s full of possibility and discovery, a sensual canvas for my creativity.
Some writers recognize the importance of paper and handwriting. Natalie Goldberg, in her classic Writing Down the Bones, says, “Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart [than typing]. . . . You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses” (pp. 6, 7, 50). She’s right.
I especially like the declaration acknowledging by poet, novelist, and writing teacher Steven Taylor Goldsberry in The Writer’s Book of Wisdom. He acknowledges our very roots: “Compose with pen and paper. . . . The impulse to dirty our hands must hearken back to the dawn of man when Paleolithic artists crunched charcoal into water and applied it to the surface of flat rock. We have an ancestral, even spiritual, desire to create by hand.” (p. 41)
Goldsberry, too, dismisses electronic aid with an argument from etymology. “Look at the word manuscript. [In Latin] . . . manu means by hand; scriptus means written” (p. 41).
Science agrees. The London Daily Mail reported on a study with children who learned better with handwriting than computer typing. “Something is apparently lost in the brain process when switching from pen and book to computer screen and keyboard” (“Why the Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” January 21, 2011).
Research conducted by the neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay and colleagues showed that handwriting activates parts of the brain that keyboard typing does not (Amfinn Christensen, “Paper Beats Computer Typing,” ScienceNorway, March 13, 2013). Such validations are heartening, but I don’t need them. Although I’ve transitioned to Writing, and especially revising, on the computer, paper always pulls me. For first drafts, nothing beats sitting with my feet up, coffee at my elbow, clipboard on my lap, favorite pen poised. Goldberg calls writing a visual art, tactical, and visceral.
With my perfectly weighted pen, I draw the words that emerge—loops, dots, circles, tails—sometimes with infinite care and other times with unbridled scrawl, dictated by some providential Inner Writer. Click To Tweet
Those handwritten drafts? I save them. They’re better than stashed money. Despite stuffed files, the drafts prove my writing life. I’m wealthy with all the versions, whether or not they’ve been published or would survive me. But those are not the goals. The sheaves of cherished drafts attest to my writing development and production, through every year and stage and trial.
Early Passion for Paper
I first realized how paper entices and woos me when, as a novice writer, I attended an all-day writing workshop. After the requisite introductions, the instructor handed each member an old-fashioned school composition notebook, that classic with the black-and-white marble design cover and light-blue ruled lined sheets.
In the morning session, she gave several assignments, and everyone responded by scribbling away dutifully. Then we broke for lunch, and the instructor announced she would collect the notebooks when we returned.
All six of us students crowded into a booth in a local Chinese restaurant. While the others were arguing over which dishes to order and how much to share, I took out my notebook and started writing, continuing the morning’s assignment. When the food came, even though I love Chinese, I kept going, hardly noticing what I was eating.
At that lunch, magnetized by the remaining blank light-blue lined pages, I had a mission: to fill that notebook. I wrote and wrote, alternating pen and chopsticks (no mean feat) and tasting little.
The others at the table seemed not to notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything. They wrestled with their chopsticks and picked up forks, their notebooks dormant on their laps or backpacks. Maybe they were glad to stop thinking for an hour and concentrate on the food. But I had to fill my notebook.
At the afternoon session, the instructor asked for the notebooks. She leafed through each one, nodding or frowning. She picked up mine, and when she came to the last filled page, she looked up sharply. “There’s always one.” It sounded like a scolding. Then she shocked me: “Thank you for taking the workshop so seriously and for giving it your all.”
This comment did not endear me to my workshop colleagues. But I couldn’t stop myself from what I’d done, and in my embarrassment and blushing pleasure at her words, I also felt vindicated. I’d had to fill that notebook.
What I wrote in that workshop notebook, I don’t remember. To my regret, I can’t locate it. But what I do remember above all is that the notebook showed me my love of paper.
Later I graduated to letter-size clipboards, stocking them with delicious print-quality blank white sheets. I’ve got clipboards ready, with different projects-in-process fastened to each one, and permanently residing in multiple tote bags, prepared for any outing.
Despite the computer’s considerable wonders, paper is not a burden but a blessing, not slavery but freedom and possibility. I continue to be grateful for that early writing workshop and the school notebook. They stirred and confirmed my need to write, my devotion to Writing, and my love of sacred paper.
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Mused, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Noelle has delivered requested presentations on academic writing at several universities and is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA).
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume:https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel.
Other Ways to Connect with Noelle
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
What have you written lately that will educate, entertain, or enchant us? We’re looking for writing advice, tips, poetry that moves us, and problem-solving for the writer and blogger. We also publish some short-stories and have been known to create a writing contest.