Writing off the grid

Some rules of thumb.

With a Dixon Ticonderoga 2/HB (Black) pencil I can fill three pages of a standard 8×5 steno pad on a single sharpening — if I wield it gingerly. That’s equivalent to two pages of a standard 8.5 x 11 lined pad.

A single pencil is good for four hours of actual writing time, until repeated sharpening renders it too short to use, which for me is 3.75 inches. (I save these stubs in a drawer, much like our paleo ancestors saved the teeth of the bears they hunted.)

In my handwriting, I can fit 160 words per page on a steno pad, and 220 per page on a full-sized pad.

I know all this because after hurricane Sandy blew out my electricity, cable and Internet for six days, I rediscovered the surprising magic of plying my trade entirely by hand.

With pencil and paper, near a sunlit window.

Like Tolstoy and Twain

I’m freelance. Which means when I’m not delivering work, I am technically unemployed.

So for the week of Sandy, I had to compose all my case studies, video scripts and web content in longhand, on white lined paper — and all before daylight faded.

At dusk, I gathered up my pages and drove to my brother’s place where the grid was alive. I then typed in the day’s work and emailed it off.

Here’s the surprising part. During this week of 18th century living, I delivered slightly more work than usual, even with all the driving.

Even more odd, the work itself seemed somehow tighter, cleaner. At least to me.

And doing the work involved less of the usual angst, frustration, frittering, anger, and pain. (In spite of the pencil blister on my second finger.)

I discovered there is a profound difference between working on keyboard and screen, and working with pencil and paper.

I think I understand why mathematicians and physicists still work on whiteboards and graph paper. Hand-wrought work is somehow purer, more direct.

Here’s what I do now.

Go primal, go minimal

No, I don’t work entirely in longhand. This is my livelihood, after all. No way I’m editing and revising and updating 19 pages of web content by hand.

The Charles Dickens approach is just for the hardest part, which for me is always the beginning, when everything is blank, and I have no idea what to say or how to say it. And all my original notions sound like crap.

This is precisely the point where my brain gets up and wanders off in search of anything less painful than, you know, actually thinking hard about something. Like how to talk about this database security system. Or how to integrate social media and email in a marketing plan.

At this stage, sitting down at a laptop is like sitting down at a pinball machine. There is way too much Internet there, too much flashing, too much to click on, check on, “research” and otherwise diddle with. One weak moment and I can be gone for three hours.

And no, using a distraction-free writing app doesn’t help. That merely merely stretches a fragile membrane over all those glittering distractions. A pinprick puts me right back at the carnival.

But going to paper changes all this.

Boring myself to work

I power off the laptop. I sit with a steno pad, and a hand-sharpened pencil.

A pencil because it is primitively low-tech and non-intrusive. It is barely more than a charred twig pulled from the campfire. I use one pencil at a time, sticking with it until spent. (Never a pen, which is a mechanical contraption with springs and clickers and tubes inside. Not what we want here.)

And a steno pad because it is ingeniously designed for writing on crossed legs while seated in a chair, or with feet on desk. It was perfected in the 1930s. I can fancy myself taking dictation from a muse.

Since the pad is blank, about all I can look at are the pictures on my wall, all of which I have seen at least 367 times now.

Or, I can look out my window, and close one eye and line up the window pane with the peak of my neighbor’s roof to make two right triangles. Or I can push the pencil back and forth through the spiral binding of the steno pad, like the shuttle of a loom. That gets old fast.

What happens is, after a few minutes of this idle blankness, my hands itch to put something on the pad. A doodle, a line, a phrase, just so the page isn’t blank.

Or I start to write about what I’m trying to think of. Or why I’ll never figure out this stupid assignment. Anything to get the pencil moving, to make marks on the page, to make something physical, something to look at.

I literally have my hands on my work, like a sculptor or bread baker. It is how my neolithic brain works best, scraping marks on the cave wall.

On paper, I can somehow get closer to the work and deeper into the problem than I ever can on screen. Things are quieter. I can hear better.

Soon, sentences start to unspool from the pencil tip. Many of them are lousy and they’re in the wrong order. But so what. You keep going. The pencil feels good in the hand. I can smell the California Incense Cedar shavings.

If I’m lucky, after two pages, or maybe nine, or maybe after filling a whole pad, I find a groove, a channel, a voice, a thread that has some juice in it, and I discover what it is I am doing.

There comes a point where the sentences and thoughts start to scamper off well ahead of the pencil, way too fast to keep up.

That’s when I go to the keyboard, to catch up, get it down and get it all built. I’m going so hard by then, I can run past all the distractions and email and Google News without looking.

Pencil for thinking mode.

Laptop for production mode.

Oh, and just for reference, this post never did scamper out ahead of the pencil, which happens sometimes. I dragged the Ticonderoga right to the end. Then edited it on screen about 89 times. Not that you asked.