Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Writer Chooses Her Tool

I’ll admit it: I shop not for the person I am, but for the person I want to be.

I love book stores for their history sections, their long rows of dead poets and English novels about provincial governesses and brooding moors. For their Proust. I love gourmet food shops, too. I love their arty little jars of minced shallots and strains of peppers and spices I've never heard of. Their long rectangular boxes of water crackers so beautifully packaged, I want to buy one, not to eat, but to make my pantry shelf look more dignified. I love ordinary supermarkets. I love their oddly shaped, slightly hairy vegetable tubers. Their leafy greens, delicately ruffled and finely veined. I could spend hours wandering around a yarn shop, breathing in the different textures and colors. These little bundles of worsted wool make me dizzy and giddy and extremely ambitious. I fill my arms with the stuff, vowing to take them home, to knit my way—scarves, sweaters, water bottle cozies—through every last skein.

And yet, beyond the spices and the vegetables and that delicious yarn, there is, for me, a shopping experience that eclipses the rest. There is a retail venue—Staples, Office Depot, a cozy little stationery shop, or, in a pinch, Walmart—where I feel not only ambitious and happy and decadent but solemn and true and very, very focused. Other shoppers come to pick up printer cartridges and Bubble-Wrap envelopes, Sharpies and index cards. Educational supplies, greeting cards, coffee. And some are even here to purchase a writing instrument of some sort. Some even have very specific tastes when it comes to said writing instrument. But none of them here are after what I’m after: I’m not looking for a pen; I’m looking for the pen.

It may be too obvious for a writer to say she loves pens, but I do. I love them. My love for pens and for pen-shopping, however, is not at all the same as my love for yarn or raw spinach or fancy crackers. This is no fleeting crush, no bumbling stab at living a better life. This is my life: the writing. It’s this terrifying, hoary, strange and exhilarating work of putting my thoughts to paper. I do not strive to record the things I know to be true, or even the things I want to be true. Rather, these are things I sense are true. They are unnamable things, the truths I’m after, and my job is to name them. To capture the uncapturable. To seize such a thing, to write it down.

I need a good tool. And not just any tool, not just any pen. Choosing a pen is, for me, an intimate, almost sacred act. It is not a decision to be rushed into. I take my time, looking over the options. Ball-point pens are out from the get-go—they dry too quickly, they write too faintly. Instead, I ponder: gel roller or felt tip? I want the ink to flow freely but not too freely. I want my words to be exact, precise, even in my handwriting is atrocious. I want my ugly words to be blunt. Bold, even. Yet, I don’t want them so dark that they bleed through. I do not want my hand to cramp too quickly. And I believe the color of the ink should fit the task at hand. I like standard, sensible black ink for creative writing of any stripe. For grocery lists, blue. I critique students’ work in pencil because if there’s ever a time for me to withhold judgment—or reserve the right to change my mind—it’s when evaluating a beginner’s stab at fiction-writing.
In a sense, I’ve been searching for the perfect writing tool all my life. As a little kid, I fancied the 4-ink Bic ballpoint because, well, what girl doesn’t like options? I filched my mother’s standard blue-capped Bics from her purse. My dad’s clicky pens with the logo of the pesticides company he worked for from his desk drawer. In college, my friends called me Officina, goddess of office supplies—such was my dedication to procuring exquisite but cheap writing supplies.

These days, it's often the physical act of writing and all the pleasures of a really great pen that lures me to the desk. Or, rather, this—the pen—is what gets me through the first part, the hard part: the sitting down. The taking up of writing instrument. The decapping. The awkward first instance of contact: pen to paper. This, the beginning. It’s always clumsy. Ugly. Impossible.

Writers are famous for these kinds of rituals, for their good-luck charms. For the ways they trick themselves into the hardest part: the getting started. Faulkner and Hemingway are famous for applying whiskey quite liberally to the task. A number of contemporary writers—Dorothy Allison, Dani Shapiro--admit to dawdling about on the Internet as a means of easing into a serious writing session. Jonathan Franzen does just the opposite; he takes great pains to rid his environment of distractions at the start. Similarly, Victor Hugo used to strip down to the buff before approaching what must have been a very cold chair. My favorite, though, is Thornton Wilder who reportedly sharpened dozens of pencils before he began. I imagine this act, though practical, of course, was as much ritual as anything else. The turning the handle of the sharpener, the blowing away the shavings, the testing the points against the pads of his fingers. Here was a man I can identify with, a man who understood the importance of the writing tool as comfort and catalyst. Now that the pencils are sharpened, he can begin.

Beyond my pen fetish, I have a strict paper policy: I want it to be completely blank, with no lines or any other kind of marking. I came to this preference by reading Annie Dillard who recommends a blank page as the ultimate writing teacher. I’m a nerd, and a superstitious one at that; you tell me the page should be blank, and I go all the way—utterly, unforgivably blank. Here, now, this blank page which I, in Dillard’s words, “cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity.”

And so, if I’m going to ruin it, let me ruin it completely. And darkly. With a fine tip and a strong, black, unsmudging line.

What’s more: this is what all the expensive crackers are about. The hanks of pink felting yarn. The cauliflower. The genuine Hungarian paprika. The Proust. Acting is better than being here in mere opacity. The spices, the books, the yarn, and finally the pen: I buy them because acting—pretending, trying—is better than opacity. Because it’s better than not acting. And choosing the pen, it’s the first step. The long moments I linger there, selecting. This—my three-dollar purchase at Staples—is the greatest luxury.




Monday, April 21, 2014

Magic

I am so, so lucky that no matter where I am in life, I have always found a place for teaching in one capacity or another.

From an email from a student at Queens:

You work magic with your classes, Susan. You bring total strangers together and turn a motley crew into a fun, thoughtful, supportive writing group.