Before graduation, 2004

The past week or so I’ve struggled with my blog-posts. Each day I’ve felt I had nothing to say, and when I did figure out something to talk about, the words flowed like chilled molasses, thick and clumpy. Each day, of course, I ended up posting something, and each day this “something” was perfectly adequate: good enough for the blogosphere. But there has been stirring within me a restless discontent, a sense that I don’t like the direction my blog-prose is headed.

I’ve considered taking a day or two off from writing; I’ve considered hanging up a virtual “Gone Fishing” sign. But in the end, I’ve decided that a break from writing is exactly the last thing I need. The problem, you see, isn’t that I’ve been writing too much; the problem, you see, is that I’ve been writing too little.

Before graduation, 2004

It’s Finals Week here at Keene State, and today is the last day of Finals Week. Everything is all set-up for graduation on Sunday, Mother’s Day: it’s a cherished tradition that KSC has graduation on Mother’s Day every year, a silent nod to the parents who help make students’ graduation dreams come true. Very few students have exams on the last day of Finals Week; most profs cancel these exams or collect take-home essays early. So when I, a stickler for custom, proctored my last exam this morning, Parker Hall was like a morgue.

As my students sat writing their exams, I too sat writing, by hand, as I was formerly and regularly wont to do. This, you see, is the source of my current blog-drought. For the past couple of weeks going on a month or two or more, I’ve been writing almost entirely online. Although I’ve journaled occasionally by hand–and although I’ve duly written with my students for five timed minutes at the start of every Expository Writing class–I’ve fallen completely out of the habit of writing by hand in my notebook first thing in the morning. These days I read student papers first thing, or I check email first thing, or I blog first thing, or find something (anything!) to do first thing that doesn’t involve setting pen to paper.

Before graduation, 2004

Although at a certain level writing is writing regardless of the instrument, I consider my longhand writing to be of a different sort than the typed-on-computer variety. A reader, of course, probably wouldn’t see any difference between an essay I drafted by hand and one I composed on the keyboard, but experientially they feel entirely different. When I type, there’s always this thought at the back of my mind that someone will eventually read this. There’s always a consciousness of audience, a need to get it right. When I scribble in my notebook, though, there’s no sense of audience: nobody but me pages through my notebooks, and even I can barely read my journal-scribble. So when I write with pen to paper, the psychological sensation is entirely different: “Here I am just being me, whoever in the hell that is.” When I write with pen to paper, there’s a sense of freedom I don’t feel when I set fingers to key; when I write with pen to paper, I feel free from what Mary Austin calls “the looking and the seeming,” the need to impress others with external appearance and compliance with social norms.

As I scribbled in my notebook at today’s exam, as my students scribbled silently in their own blue-books, it occurred to me that writing with pen to paper is my own silent, sacred space, a place that resides not at the end of some far-off purple hallway but which is both portable and potent, thin sliced leaves of heaven held bound in black oilcloth in my bag. When I open that silent book and set silent pen to page, I’m no longer in a second floor classroom in Parker Hall in Keene, NH: instead, I’ve transcended space and time to visit a realm where words are real and ideas reign supreme, a place where the past is present and the distant draws near. Heaven touches earth as the tip of my pen scratches that blank receptive page, the sound of a nib-scratch being none other than the Music of the Spheres.

Lilac tree

I’ve moved beyond seeing journaling as a habit and have come to see it as a ritual, a religious act that helps bring a spot of sanity into an otherwise insane world. It is my own private way of checking in with a soul that others seldom see, my own way of checking in with a Universe that we all (myself included) spend most of our lives busily avoiding. With pen in hand I hear the sound of fluourescent classroom lights humming overhead; with pen in hand I feel through the floorboards a caffeine-addled student’s foot tap. With pen in hand I remind myself to be open to both the Infinite and the Infinitesimal, the demons and Divinity that lurk in daily detail. With pen in hand I stop the flow of time to move backward, forward, then back again, and with pen in hand I am the master of all I see, feel, touch, and imagine. With pen in hand the world I see and the world I imagine both exist in full-blooded clarity, side-by-side, equal and entire.

It is a massive act of faith, this setting of pen to paper…and so too is the act of setting fingers to keys. Whether you light your altar with matches or a butane lighter, the candles burn just as bright: pen on paper and fingers on keys are equally efficacious. In the end, it is the act of writing, the act of withdrawing into that private, silent space, that does the trick: it is a massive act of faith, this belief that “nothing to say” will magically, ultimately, turn into “something said” if you keep on at it, word by word, articulating in darkness, day after day, with faith that the Muse will arrive in her own due time, eventually.