Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Forget Moleskin

I once knew a guy whose mom accidentally “threw out his novel,” which he later revealed had been scribbled on a pile of post-it notes. Idiot! I thought, but perhaps his writing method wasn’t so ridiculous.

Plenty of writers have preceded him. Borges, an obsessive-compulsive, wrote on accounting paper. Hemingway drafted on napkins. Famously, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on one continuous scroll, and Abraham Lincoln scrawled The Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a train car. What is it about humble materials that can produce great writing?

An old boyfriend once gave me a beautiful leather-bound blank book. “Oooh,” I’d said, and reached for it as I might a newborn child. It was from Italy. It smelled good. The pages were thick as cotton, cut rough around the edges, and I kept opening and closing the binding to hear it crack. Finally: an appropriate receptacle for my literary genius.

Weeks passed. “You’re not writing in the book,” said the boyfriend. “Go away,” I said. “I am too.” The truth was I had hidden it in a drawer. Was it possible to be scared of a pretty stack of paper?

Days later I pulled open the drawer and laid the book on my desk. I watched it. Then I spent several minutes selecting the best variety of pen— perhaps a ballpoint, or a blue felt tip. The luxury of the whole thing, the expectations of it, stalled me. Like an antique arm chair lined in velvet and silk, it was a beautiful thing to behold-- but you’d never want to use it.

The best stories, I often think, begin on napkins and in the margins of receipts. Not because that image is somehow more struggling or romantic, but because it more closely follows the distraction of one’s own writing ideas. If a story is going well, you may continue “writing” it while in the shower, or while falling asleep, or while pulling carrots from the garbage disposal. In such moments, who has time to find their leather-bound beauty? Scrawl it on your hand and keep pulling.

But more importantly, makeshift materials and beaten-up desks may better serve the goals of writing itself. If a writer’s job is to discover the odd details of life, to find what’s unlikely and unique and surprising— then it helps to be in such settings yourself. If your writing life is too comfortable, if it's not gritty enough, you may find yourself losing the intrigue that spawns stories in the first place. Or, I should say, I do.

So forget moleskin, and fountain pens crafted by French artisans. Artists need something to work against. They need friction. Embrace your dank basement desk, your crumpled legal pad, and your “studio time” on the city bus. Your means are not predictable— and your writing won’t be, either.

~Sonya Larson


The Writers' Group said...

Sonya, this is a testament to your skills as a writer! Carrots? Friction? Such vivid detail and your voice is captivating. I'm more intrigued than ever to read your novel. Write faster. Please.


Trish Ryan said...

Gay Talese describes his painstaking writing process in his autobiography. Honestly, given how LONG his books are and how much he wrestles with each word, it's nothing short of a miracle he gets anything written at all. But he does. I guess that's kind of a miracle for all of us who write :)

Sue said...

Sonya, I really love this post.

I used to write words on my hand, just so I wouldn't forget them. Then, when people started to notice, I resorted to train tickets. Even if I carry a notebook, it stays surprisingly blank!

Crystallyn said...

I really do love moleskin though...I just love the way the paper feels when you write on it. Plus they aren't actually "pretty" so they don't freak me out as much. :) I too have a gorgeous Italian book that I've barely written in!

I'm all over the place with my notes, half of them in a variety of notebooks, half of them in online notebooks. I also tend to write a lot of notes but never go back to them...but I think that the simple act of getting down words is half the battle.

Great post.

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