The simple joys of hand-writing

I get ribbed a lot about my note-taking. Constant scribbling is such a habit for me that one colleague expressed concern during a recent meeting when I wasn’t taking notes. “I forgot my pen,” I shrugged.

Here’s the thing: I have a terrible memory — so if I don’t write it down I’ll probably forget it. My notes help me remember. (In fact, research shows the physical act of writing itself seems to help us remember.)

But the scribbling hadn’t crossed into my personal life until this spring, when I went to New Orleans with my husband and our friends Liz and James. I expected our days to be so full of sightseeing that I left the laptop at home, and instead brought a little journal so I could jot a few notes on the fly.

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I ended up filling the entire notebook.

I loved that it weighed nothing, fit in my purse, and that I could whip it out in an instant — no booting-up or internet required. I also loved that the quality of my handwriting itself reflected how I was feeling. But most of all, I loved the tactile experience of putting pen to paper.

We’ll skip over the part where I develop a full-on obsession with that tactile experience, and start making my own notebooks out of onion skin paper — or the bit in which I dig out an old fountain pen, retrofit it with a super-fine Japanese nib, and try a parade of inks that leak, dribble, and sputter until I’m a literal ink-stained wretch.

The important thing is that soon I had the pen and notebook of my dreams … and I was writing reams. I don’t know how many pages exactly, but at least 200 in the past three months.

Over the past three months my hand-writing habit has helped me grieve a dear friend, rediscover sketching, and mark a family milestone.

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This is “sketching.” Thankfully, the family milestone featured fewer insects.

My trusty pen and notebook have also helped me reconnect with a writing process I’d long since forgotten: Sit down. Think. Write.

It may sound simple, but the ripple effects have been profound.

I’ve become better at focusing since I started writing by hand. Partly it’s because writing by hand takes more time and energy than typing, so I’m motivated to be concise. But it also forces me to slow down (since my thoughts can only flow as freely as my hand does). In this way, writing has again become a form of meditation.

Here’s one of those particularly meditative moments — the start of a pilgrimage — I witnessed in Paris last month:

I awoke at 6 a.m. to what sounded like a manif [protest]: One man speaking short phrases into a bullhorn, and the murmurs of a crowd. I made a mental note as I got dressed. “Avoid the Hôtel de Ville.”

My intended destination was the Marché de la Philatelie, which the TimeOut guide said opened at 8 a.m. But I was distracted on my way to the Métro by the throngs of people milling about on the sidewalks. The [Quai Montebello] was choked with parked cars.

The crowd grew thicker still as I approached Notre Dame, where two guys were guarding the entrance to the parvis [courtyard]. “C’est pourquoi ?” I asked. “It’s the beginning of the pilgrimage to Chartres,” one guy replied. “May I pass, to get to the Métro ?” I asked. They nodded and let me in.

But of course I dawdled and gawked and took photos. Most of the pilgrims were kids, dressed in matching outfits according to their affiliations: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Germans, school groups …

The main, central doors of the cathedral were open to welcome them. As they began their procession, the sound of the majestic organ burst through and subdued the bullhorn and the murmuring and the sounds of traffic. And as if by instinct — or maybe generations of conditioning — the crowd responded in song.

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I’ll be back soon with some more of these stories. Thank you for stopping by, and for taking the time to read.