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I’ve heard there are writers who never touch paper. People who scribe with never a pen. Who twinkle stylish fingers over smooth ubiquitous screens, ushering sentences towards paragraphs with the airiest of gestures. I don’t.
I have met them online, where intangible things flip in and out of sight and yet exist with preternatural permanence. In virtual encounters with simulated faces, I hear it’s easier done this way. Text is more malleable in digital form: Cut, Paste, Copy, Apply Edits with a flick of the finger and barely the blink of an eye.
I can do most of those things too, when I have to. For, with pleasing irony, the icons on my computer screen evoke physical artefacts of half-forgotten times: diagonal-folded envelope, mediaeval shield, metal dustbin from a society where waste disposal meant ashes from a family hearth. I know how to use them, awkwardly, just as I know how to cut and dip a quill pen—unsure of my results.
I belong somewhere in the middle. A happy medium, I tell myself, between Dark Age and Rise of the Robots. I revel in a comfort zone of A4 and biro, composing on paper and typing up later. I scribble and scramble, jot and adjust, in InkJoy on the backs of disused office printouts until the third draft or the fourth. I ritually rip my previous copies into sixteen pieces exactly. Small enough to conceal the naked mess and clutter of my intermediate steps, my words-that-didn’t-work, my crossings-out and tryings-again. All anyone will ever really see is final draft.
It’s hugely inefficient, I’ll grant you that. Like a tree producing more leaves than fruit. I’ll often use fifteen sheets of scrap paper to build a thing that will print to half a page. But it’s waste paper, already in line for the bin. Surplus one-sided printouts that I reuse and recycle.
My right middle finger bears the ugly mark of a million handwritten words, most of them discarded like empty snakeskins. My paper-bin flutters with shreds of disconnected thought and wasted ink. But this is my routine, and if I ever try to change it I’m afraid I won’t know what to write. I can only compose with a pen in my hand.
People give me nice new notebooks sometimes, fine embellished volumes opening with invitation, asking for beautiful words. It’s meant for validation, like telling you whatever you write is worth the keeping but I need to know it’s not and doesn’t have to be. I need to remember my first draft’s rubbish and my second’s a journey, and I need my ritual destruction of rough scribbled-out adjustments and changes of course. I need freedom to destroy if I am to create. It’s like dressing your children in scruffy old clothes so they can wander through mud and undergrowth—and blossom. Time enough for nice clothes later.
In the end I will go to my computer, type up my work, entrust it to an icon resembling a cardboard tag-file. I will look it through another day and maybe change a word still here and there. I will send it electronically to places that only exist online, to be read by invisible people who feather-fingered scroll down pages not of paper, never guessing its ragged undignified beginnings.
Fiona M Jones writes very short things. Her current fiction works include the Little Boy Lost anthology. Fiona's nonfiction appears in Longleaf Review, Elsewhere Journal, Folded Word and various others. Her published work is linked through @FiiJ20 on Facebook, Twitter and Thinkerbeat.