Like many other writers, I marvel at today’s LCD screens, virtual print, dictated speech-to-type, and other electronic writing wonders. But I continue to have a sacred relationship with paper. Never to be taken for granted, it is to be cherished. Never to be used profligately but thoughtfully. Never to be wasted but filled. A holy receptacle for the words that flow through.
Writers have described an often ambivalent relationship with paper or its surrogates. The two poles, especially with the first page (or first line) are generally these: it’s (a) dread blank whiteness that reprimands with its emptiness, or (b) an expansive invitation full of possibility and discovery. I’ve had my struggles with the first, of course, but paper to me is much more often the second—a beautiful sensual twelve-foot white tablecloth waiting to receive all my cooked-up creations.
Drafts? I save them. They’re better than money. Despite stuffed files and difficult navigation, the drafts are proof of my writing life. I’m rich with the many experiments and versions, whether or not they’d ever survive me. But that’s not the point. The abundant drafts attest my writing production, through every stage and year and trial.
I only realized how paper pulls me when I went to an all-day writing workshop. After the requisite introductions, the instructor handed to each member an old-fashioned school composition notebook, that classic with black-and-white marble design cover and light-blue ruled lined sheets. In the morning session, responding to her assignments, everyone scribbled away dutifully, and then we broke for lunch. The instructor announced she would collect the notebooks when we returned.
All six of us crowded into a booth in a local Chinese restaurant. While the others were arguing over which dishes to get and how much to share, I took out my notebook and started writing, continuing the morning’s assignment. I even joined the menu fray while I wrote. What I ate, though, I hardly noticed, even though I love Chinese food.
Magnetized by the remaining blank light-blue lined pages, my lunch mission was to fill that notebook. I kept writing, alternating pen and chopsticks (no mean feat) and tasting little. I had to fill that notebook.
The others at the table seemed not to notice, or if they did, they didn’t comment. No one else opened their notebooks. Maybe they were glad to stop thinking and creating for an hour and concentrate on the food. But for me, those blank ruled pages reprimanded and beckoned. I had to fill that notebook.
Back at the afternoon session, the instructor asked for the notebooks. She leafed through each one, nodding or frowning. When she came to mine, she went to the last page, filled, and looked up sharply. “There’s always one,” she said. It sounded like a scolding. Then she said, “Thank you for taking the workshop so seriously and for giving it your all.”
Needless to say, 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 comment, I also felt vindicated. I had to fill that notebook.
What I wrote in that workshop I don’t remember. To my regret, I can’t locate the notebook. But that day confirmed my love of paper and my need to fill the notebook.
Later I graduated to letter-size clipboards, filling them with delicious print-quality blank white sheets. I’ve got clipboards for every occasion, and they permanently reside in multiple tote bags, ready for any outing. Sometimes, for sudden thoughts or phrases that must be captured, I use small spiral-bound notebooks, and if nothing else is around post-its.
Whatever the form, the paper invites. Yet now, unlike that day at the workshop, I no longer feel I must fill every page, or for that matter, the computer screen of truly endless mirrored pages. I’m calmer probably because I write on a fairly regular schedule, with confidence that I’ll continue.
The paper is not Sisyphus but Apollo, Apollo the Light Bringer and Creator of art. Not slavery but freedom and possibility. And giving as many opportunities as needed in draft after draft toward elusive perfection. I remain grateful for that writing workshop and the school notebook. They stirred and confirmed my need to write, love of writing, and the sacredness of paper.
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, ReadLearnWrite, Women on Writing, Transformation Magazine, 11.11, and Unity booklets. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally), with a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook in progress. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery.” Discussions appear on Goodreads: http://www.unity.org/publications/unity-books/summer-reading-series, Her webinar on the book of June 26, 2013, can be heard and seen on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?V=95EeqllONIQ.