20 November 2011

53. Writing

Dear writing,

Thank you for existing. You help me organize my thoughts like nothing else in the world, and for that I am eternally grateful. This November is another National Blog Posting Month, one with the official theme "blogging for blogging's sake," which works remarkably well for me, since it's pretty much exactly why I signed up for the event (after sorting through more than a little bit of technical difficulty, I registered as blogger #2011 on the official November blogroll, which feels very auspicious).

Anyway, over at the official NaBloPoMo site there's official prompts every weekday to inspire people to write, and of course given the month's theme, some of those have jiggled my brain as well. For instance the very first such prompt, for November 1, was "What is your favourite part about writing?" (ooh, British spelling, very fancy!) and that alone would be reason to write you right there (I know, this letter is uncomfortably meta; I don't think there's anything in particular I can do about that, so I'm rolling with it as best I can). The prompt for November 4 was, "When you are writing, do you prefer to use a pen or a computer?" which of course got me thinking as well. Lynda Barry's brilliant What It Is emphasizes the importance of movement, actually physically writing, on paper, by hand, that there's something fundamentally different about work produced in that way, and she's definitely on to something there. Unfortunately I type much faster than I write by hand, and whenever I go to put thoughts down in my paper journal (that's how I think of it these days, my paper journal; I think it's a relic of when I had to distinguish between hand-written books and LiveJournal) I always feel even less like I'm not quite keeping up with myself than I do while typing (which still isn't as fast as I'd like). And that's before my hand starts cramping up all fierce, which is also a problem, to put it mildly.

Along those same lines, I find blank computer screens much less intimidating than blank paper: if I fill a screen with drivel, as I worried about doing to the pages of a Moleskine back when I was writing for Everything2, well, I've just wasted my own energy and electrons. Messing up a real sheet of paper somehow feels worse, more wasteful. It's evidence of my screwing up, which I could throw out, but then there's the waste issue again, or on the other hand it could turn into wasted space in my own ever-cluttered desk and file cabinets if at the same time I want to keep that hand-written whatever just in case there was something useful there that I might be able to rewrite or recycle somehow later (and writing is rewriting for me, no doubt about it; back when I was writing poetry—hey, it was high school—I did compose almost everything by hand, and I used to start over and over again, a new page every time as I copied over the bits I liked and left out others and expanded on the words which had worked... I don't know if I've saved anything I wrote like that, but maybe I kind of miss it? There's a thought there. ANYWAY.)

In my heart of hearts, sure, I prefer writing on paper as an aesthetic and somehow more meaningful experience than typing a keyboard and seeing words appear on a screen. Don't get me started on tap-tap-tapping with my thumbs, which is only good at being a portable way to wrangle ideas I want to cast into the ether without retyping them later from paper. But from a practical, manual-labor, not-art-but-craft perspective, I can't beat using a computer. Especially when I'm freewriting out all the gobbledygook I can find in my head in the hopes of sorting some of it into usefulness or at least coherence later. LaTeX comments for the win forever! (Ok, enough of that nerd rant for the time being now.) But speaking of LaTeX, I have been typesetting these open letters into a book for some time now, and I just got around to updating it with the latest letters from this year, and you know what? 52 letters (53, counting this one) really add up to something that looks substantial. Book-like, even. Like an accomplishment. I'm thinking of learning how to format them so they'll look good in PDF form on an iPhone screen or other e-book reader, and then I might be all set to self-publish, as terrifying as that was to type even into just a blog post draft, let alone post in public (we'll how long it lasts out here). I'm left with all these fun little aesthetic decisions: should I just put them out chronologically? Separate issues organized by theme? But I'm getting sidetracked here.

Back to you, writing.

I haven't even mentioned how you make reading possible, and that's sort of ridiculous, since I love reading so much it needs more than its own letter, more like its whole library of books, my whole life and wishing I could live longer still. When I think about immortality, I know it would be lonely and sad after awhile, but I also get a little swoony with joy at the thought of all the books I could read... and the fact that you make reading possible might indeed be my favorite thing about you, writing, to tie back to a thought from the beginning of this letter. Thank you, writing, for giving me reading.

Last night I started rereading Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, and ran across this description of a character who has deliberately forgotten how to read: "You try to picture how the world might appear, this world dense with writing that surrounds us on all sides, to someone who has learned not to read." I can hardly imagine, but it reminded me of a story in Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire, from the perspective of an illiterate character who encounters writing for the first time: it is magic, pure and simple and somewhat sinister. How can making marks put thoughts into the minds of people who look at them? Sometimes those mark-thoughts even make a person do someone else's bidding! Sometimes I almost feel like I'm doing the bidding of those little marks by making more of them, whether on a computer screen or in a more physical medium. Writing for writing's sake, full circle back to the ideas at the beginning of this letter.

And that is as close as I think I'm going to get to a conclusion in this letter, writing. It's hard to force myself to stop rambling here, but the thought of other things I want to write gives me strength. To paraphrase John Steinbeck, I must believe that what I am writing is the most important thing in the world. And I must hold true to this illusion even when I know it is not true (New York Times, 2 June 1969). Writing, whether the next marks I make are important or not, I look forward to sharing them with you.


Started and published 20 November 2011, last updated 6 June 2014.