Take Four | Living with A Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts

We are always yapping about the “Good Old Days” and how we look back and enjoy it, but I tell you there is a lot of hooey to it. There is a whole lot of our past lives that was not so hot.

–Will Rogers (1879-1953; American Vaudeville Performer, Actor, and Social Commentator)

Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.

You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.

No doubt, you–dear reader–are wondering why on earth I am at a loss for words. Let me explain. My post last week focused exclusively on me: “Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities.”

One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.

One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)

It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.

Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”

I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.

My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.

Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.

I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.

Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.

I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed Creative MetaNonfiction.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.

I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.

Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?

I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]

Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?

Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.

However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.

Already I can think of three possible solutions.

Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.

Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.

Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.

“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.

I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.

Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.

Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.

Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.

But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.

Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.

They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.

What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.

But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.

I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked Legal Pad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!

Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.

I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.

Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.

I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.

As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.

Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.

Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.

I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!

This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.

FINAL Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?

Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.) And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?

But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.

OHIO on My Mind.

If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.

Groucho Marx (1890-1977; American comedian, writer, and performer: stage, radio, television and vaudeville. He was the most famous of the Four Marx Brothers.)

One of my all-time favorite essays is Suzanne Britt’s “Neat People vs. Sloppy People.” It’s perfect when I’m exploring the structure of compare/contrast essays in my College Composition classes, especially as I explain a subject-by-subject approach. The first half of her essay focuses on sloppy people; the second half, neat people.

But what I like far more than the essay’s rhetorical structure is Britt’s unexpected humor.

Obviously, it’s not unexpected humor for me because I have taught the essay for decades, and, for what it’s worth, the essay is as fresh and as funny today as it was when I first read it in her Show & Tell (1983).

But it is unexpected humor for my students. Here’s why. Britt sets the stage brilliantly with nothing more than the essay’s title. Tell the truth. In your own mind, don’t neat people always win out over sloppy people?

Of course! Neat people always come out on top. And in her essay, they even come out first in the title. We’re all programmed to value neatness over sloppiness. My students are, too.

So I like to build on the assumptive beliefs that Britt puts into motion with nothing more than the title. When I assign the essay–but before my students have read it–I ask them to jot down whether they are neat or sloppy.

Also, I ask them to jot down whether I am neat or sloppy. I know fully well that they will put me into the “neat” category. When I am at the college, I always wear a shirt and tie (or jacket, shirt, and tie) and real, polished dress shoes. (Mine are real because they have genuine leather soles.) My students are convinced that’s how I dress when I’m weeding or when I’m weedwhacking or when I’m splitting wood with a maul. Shirt. Tie. Real shoes with genuine leather soles. No doubt about it. I’m in the “neat people” category.

My students read the essay. When they come back to class prepared to discuss both categories–neat and sloppy–they are gobsmacked.

Let me explain.

Britt is soft–really soft–in her discussion of sloppy people, and, indeed, she defends their sloppiness: “Sloppy people, you see, are not really sloppy. Their sloppiness is merely the unfortunate consequence of their extreme moral rectitude. Sloppy people carry in their mind’s eyes a heavenly vision, a precise plan that is so stupendous, so perfect, it can’t be achieved in this world or the next. […] Someday is their m├ętier. Someday they are planning to alphabetize all their books and set up home catalogs. Someday they will go through their wardrobe and mark certain items for tentative mending and certain items for passing on to certain relatives of similar size and shape.”

And in the second half of her essay, Britt comes down hard–really hard–on neat people. She’s exaggerating, of course, but my students aren’t expecting her extreme exaggeration, even though they all chime in, announcing that someone in their family is “just like that.” Here’s an example: “Neat people have cavalier attitudes toward possessions, including family heirlooms. Everything is just another dust-catcher to them. If anything collects dust, it’s got to go and that’s that. Neat people will toy with the idea of throwing the children out of the house just to cut down on the clutter.”

Her exaggerated ending is just as comical: “Neat people […] are so insensitive. After they’ve finished with the pantry, the medicine cabinet, and the attic, they will throw out the red geranium (too many leaves), sell the dog (too many fleas), and send the kids off to boarding school (too many scuff marks on the hard-wood floors).

It goes without saying that my students remain 100% convinced–really convinced–that I’m in the “neat people” category.

However, their eyes widen and their mouths open when I disclose that I am unequivocally in the “Sloppy People” category. I offer up solid evidence. I have every personal letter that I have ever received. I have every canceled check that I have ever written. I have all of my federal and state income tax returns. I have my father’s last bottle of cologne (Avon–Wild Country, still fragrant after 40 years). I have my mother’s last tube of toothpaste (Close-Up, still squeezable after 12 years). I have my late partner’s last pack of chewing gum (Spearmint– Rain, still tempting after one year and six months). Need I go on? I agree. Thank you. I’ll spare you and me.

Needless to say, down through the years as I gathered up all of these treasures (and, let me add, they are treasures)–evidence of lives lived; of lives well lived; of stories in the making; or of stories waiting to be written–my motives were pure and noble. And they still are as I continue to gather up treasures.

But a few months ago, I started seeing tell-tale signs of a type of sloppiness that has nothing at all to do with my extreme moral rectitude–the underlying reason why I keep all the things that I can’t bear to toss away as of no worth.

I wonder sometimes whether some of my emerging, non-moral sloppiness isn’t downright laziness.

I mean, like … maybe everyone does some of the things that I discovered that I was starting to do. I hope so, but I doubt it.

Let me toss out some examples. You decide.

In early spring, I pruned an evergreen tree outside my bedroom window. When I finished, I returned my shears to the basement, but I had the brilliant idea that since the ladder was out, I should go ahead and polish the windows on that side of the house. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time right then. So I folded the step ladder and left it on the edge of the walkway. Sadly, way led on to way, and well over a week later, I was still walking around the ladder lying on the walkway, still somewhat in my way.

Here’s another example. Emails. Yes. I keep all of the personal, meaningful ones in virtual folders. No problem. But what about all of the other ones that I could delete and be done with? Why don’t I just go ahead and delete? I don’t, and I don’t know why. Or what about the ones that require–and will get–a straight forward response? Why not respond right then? Your guess is as good as mine. I have a tendency to wait until the next day so that I can think about the response that requires absolutely no depth of thought at all and that will get no depth of thought at all.

And then there’s the real mail, the printed stuff that I find in my mailbox. Most of it is junk mail, of so little interest to me that sometimes I let it accumulate and ride along for several days as the passenger in my Jeep before bringing it into the house and tossing it into the trash where it belonged in the first place.

And what about the real estate tax bill that I discover when I sort through the stack of junk mail that’s been riding along with me? I always look at the due date and inevitably decide to wait a few days or so before paying. Why? I have no idea. It would be so simple to just write the check and check that item off of my to-do list.

This self-discovery, folks, was troubling and troublesome. Somehow, I knew that I had to reconcile the sloppy side of me that Britt celebrates with this sloppy/lazy side of me that causes crimson as I cringe.

Fortunately, I remembered a perfect solution that had been hiding out in my cluttered mind–yes, it’s sloppy, too–all along. Years ago, when I was the  Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office, I worked closely with Copyright’s executive officer. Her office was lean, mean, and sparse.  Nothing was out of place.

“How on earth do you manage to keep your office like this?”

Her response? “Only handle it once.”

I have always remembered her approach even if I have not always applied it.

But as I thought about this post, I did some quick research to see what else I might find out about the wisdom that Grace Reed shared with me.

Come to find out, “only handle it once” is a well-known management tool that’s been around for decades and decades.

It’s commonly referred to as OHIO: Only Handle It Once.

Guess what? I’ve been using it to save myself from becoming the sloppy/lazy person that I am hell bent on not becoming.

Guess what else? It’s working really well.

Let me prove it to you. Hang on a sec. I’ll be right back after I do a quick walk through of my home.

That didn’t take long, did it? Thanks for waiting.

I am ecstatic because I only found three things that I had not disposed of properly when I handled them the first time. A can of spray paint by the kitchen door leading to the deck. (Later today, I’ll throw the can away after I paint the table on the deck.) A brush cutter replacement blade at the top of the stairs leading to the utility room downstairs. (I would have been back sooner, but you will be pleased to know that I took the time to put the blade on its designated hook in the utility room.) A post card eye-exam reminder smack dab on the edge of my dining room table. (Voila! I made it disappear. Who needs it now, anyway? My appointment is bright and early tomorrow.)

My efforts to avoid toppling into the abyss of lazy sloppiness have made me so ecstatic–so euphoric–that I may well have reached a near state of mystic self-transcendence, and I want to stay in that state. For that reason–and that reason alone–as I move ahead, rest assured that I will keep OHIO on my mind.