The magic and mess of a blank page

I started the year trying to resume the discipline of keeping a handwritten journal. This process of deliberately writing by hand has reminded me how it so often results in a flow that’s very different from writing using a keyboard.

This got me to thinking about a poem I’d written several years ago about writing by hand

On the first day of a writer’s workshop, the instructor said we would be writing by hand.

Write with a pen? On paper? Surely, you’re kidding, I thought. I write with a pen only when hard copy editing, jotting off personal thank-you notes or signing an occasional check. I’m the queen of a paperless workspace, the diva of electronic communication.

The instructor offered us the choice of old-style composition books for our writing work. I reached for my laptop saying, “I don’t write by hand.”

“Here we do,” the instructor said.

So in the interest of cooperation, I dutifully selected the notebook with the cover that most appealed to me. I pulled out the only pen I had in my bag – a purple roller ball I used for editing at work. I opened the notebook, skimmed my hand across the first page and gripped my purple pen helplessly. I felt completely blank.

There’s something different about staring down a blank piece of paper versus a blank computer screen. At least the screen has other distractions going on … icons, blinking cursor, color. That blank lined page scared me. That purple pen felt like lead in my hand.

I’ve always liked the simplicity of “cut and paste” on a computer. If I get something wrong, it’s just a matter of highlight and delete. The consistency of font choices is familiar. They are tidy and easy to manage. Things might occasionally get messy with track changes, but I can always hide that. And a computer key never leaks purple ink or leaves a ridge on my finger.

Writing by hand means I can go back to another page and find words I thought I didn’t need. Those words are still sitting right there where I left them, good as new. This is unlike typing on a computer. Once that delete key zaps out a word, a turn of a phrase or a thought, it’s pretty much gone for good.

The process of writing by hand with that purple pen has led me to a softer acceptance of my daily striving to get it right the first time – whatever “it” is. My default had long been “get it right, and if you don’t, just quickly fix it.”

But now when I open my paper journal (almost) every day, I try not to see just a blank page. I remind myself to see possibilities in the messes of colors and lines and squiggles that often lead me to places I didn’t know I could explore.

Sure, it’s messy. But isn’t that how we get to the good stuff?

Published by Reba Campbell

Reba Hull Campbell established the Medway Group in 2020, bringing more than 35 years of professional success in politics, government relations, organizational leadership, fundraising and communications to her clients and her teaching.

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