For the Love of Paper

Over the past few years, I’ve grappled with a relationship problem that’s severely impacted my writing:  My computer and I have been growing slowly but surely apart.

As a companion for my day job publicizing books and businesses, Mac has been perfect.  I can spend ten hours a day gazing into his face and running my fingers over his keys, completely absorbed in our never-ending conversation without noticing thirst or hunger or even my kids’ pleas for attention.  But — call me fickle — when I’m in the mood for dreaming up fiction, that same conversation, droning with emails, tweets, new Writer Unboxed posts and Facebook comment threads, feels like a set of shackles.  It demands that I listen to it, and it alone, the instant my fiction work becomes the least bit difficult.  Which is often.

The result may sound familiar to anyone involved in a similar triangle: Mac recently became a burden and serious nuisance during my precious, painfully limited time in fiction mode.  Every few minutes he’d reach for me with an e-mail I just couldn’t leave for later, a news article I absolutely had to read and tweet right away.  (For example: did you know that men’s underwear sales can be an indicator of economic growth?!? Who could resist?)

Even when I’d tune out or turn off Mac’s most powerful source of attraction — that amazing, irresistible WiFi connection (*sigh*) — I just couldn’t get it out of my mind.  I’d find myself promising him that I’d pop by and log on in ten minutes, or five, or as soon as I’d finally written a coherent sentence.  The quality of my time with fiction deteriorated into a series of furtive encounters punctuated by the promise of hurrying over to visit Mac.

Eventually, I fessed up and acknowledged that it was time to stop leading this double life.  If I wanted to give my love for fiction a fighting chance, Mac would have to go.  Cold turkey.

Logically, this could mean only one thing.  Because Mac also tempts me to waste time revising and revising while drafting, cutting and pasting, re-ordering text and browsing over frequently to, my new fiction companion would have to be…paper.  Totally electronics-free.

At first, it felt awful.  Those legal pads I bought — yellow for one main character, white for the other — were ugly, messy and dry to the touch.  My right hand ached constantly, and the sight of my handwriting, awkward as a middle-school crush, made me cringe.  Hideous arrows grew in the margins as I noted where I’d move sentences around or insert new words.  Even the ashy smell of paper made my stomach turn.

But to my surprise, I soon found my imagination working more freely than it had when it was under Mac’s spell.  The mere notion that revising was impractical somehow helped my thoughts gel more quickly into ideas that I could actually use.  Characters were coming alive of their own volition without getting stuck behind the agonizing barrier of word choice.  The broad story line just unrolled before me in a way it never has before, and even those arrows in the margins, those blotchy scratch-outs and my own penmanship — ick! — turned into a sort of visual prompt, an abstract but visible map of tone and mood.  And the smell, well…it grew on me.

Could I be in love?

While I’m trying not to think too much about the future, I do suspect that at some point I’ll have to find a way to reconcile with Mac.  To begin again with him on new terms.  Perhaps he’ll hold my hand as I begin revisions.  Or help me store my new novel’s pages somehow.

But for that to work out, we’ll have to agree to just be friends.


About Sharon Bially

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s an active member of Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s 2nd largest independent writing center, and writes for the Grub Street Daily.


  1. says

    I love the relationship analogy here. I have the opposite perspective. I don’t get along with pen and paper. I fall into all kinds of bad habits, like telling instead of showing, and the worst part is the act of writing is SO slow and cannot keep up with my rapid-fire brain. Give me my laptop any day, but to each her own. Good lock to you.

    • says

      I’m with you. I have a tough time writing neatly in a card and even my keyboard doesn’t seem to keep up with my brain. I do have an author that writes by pen and pad and then types it in later. I’m in awe of that method, really.

    • says

      Exactly my feeling. I cannot read my own writing, I hate hand cramps, and I already have too much paper on my desk. But if someone tells me how to copy/cut and paste on paper, I might give it a whirl.

  2. says

    Sooo cute! You had me at ‘hello’. I, also, retreat to papyrus in times of conceptionalizing plot, scene sequence and character development but, when the time comes for seriously putting meat-on-bones, it’s the blessings of Microsoft Word upon which I depend. The two methods are not in conflict for me but compliment one another.

  3. says

    I’ve heard other writers extol the virtues of pen and paper, claiming a similar free-flow creativity relationship. I should give it a more earnest try. Like CG, my thinking tends to get stuck when I try to write long-hand. However, I do need to be more disciplined in shutting down email, Twitter and Facebook while I write. It is far too easy to fall into distractions with the computer (affairs?).

    May your pen, paper and you enjoy a long-term relationship, for better or for worse.

  4. Marly says

    I have the same experience with pen and paper. Writing longhand always breaks through the block. However, I am very picky about the paper and the pen I use. I find that if I enjoy the physical aspect of writing that makes it easier for the ideas to flow as well. I also like the messiness of revising on paper. I will then transfer the draft to my Mac. By the way, writing on a typewriter can help as well and it’s tremendous fun. The clackety clack of the keys can help with the rhythm of sentences. I recommend trying this as well.

  5. says

    I love working on paper. My problem is that I do not like transcribing my own handwriting. If I could hire someone to do that part–someone who wouldn’t mind the arrows all over the page–then I would do it all of the time.

    This was a fun post, Sharon. Thanks!

  6. says

    I am sorry about your break-up, you will grieve the loss then move on. Don’t think of it as losing a love, think of it as narrowly escaping being run over by a heard of bulls. Well some people like that thrill of outrunning the bulls. I feel your pain. I have been there. and now that I know that my Mac has been cheating on me with you, I am going to go have a good cry. Ciao for now. Wifi has been bitter sweet.

  7. Marilyn Slagel says

    My problem isn’t with Mac. It’s with Mic. We are in a love/hate relationship, too. Pen and paper just don’t do it for me. Too slow. The constant lure of contact via FB, Twitter, email, news, etc. is the bane of my existence. Addicted? To my toes and then some!

    It’s nice to know I have company. Maybe we could double date sometime? Although I’ve heard Mac and Mic aren’t the best of friends.

  8. says

    Loved this!

    My triangle is between me, Laptop (where I write fiction), and PC (where I blog, write non-fiction and waste hours every day on facebook).

    I’m not a paper girl, I write far too quickly for that. And I don’t think PC is at fault here. I think it’s facebook. Facebook is just giong to have to go.

    So….maybe I’ve been involved in a four-way all along…Fifty Shades of Most Recent posts…

  9. says

    Although I don’t use paper to write my stories, I do use paper to develop my stories and characters. I must scribble before I can write.

    And, there’s research supporting the idea that handwriting makes us more imaginative and intelligent. Don’t want to get hit by a link police but google Indiana University, Wall Street Journal, and impact of handwriting. Handwriting boosts brainpower, I think, is the title.

  10. says

    Sharon, I’m a notebook glutton. GLUTTON! I use them for ideas and mind maps and lists. I beeline for the stationery and office aisles at Target. I think, hey, I get to save 5% with my Target red card which is why I have so stinking many notebooks and cards. I need another desk just to keep them all in. Paper will always be my first love, though I don’t write anything long form on it.

    I think it’s cool that you found a method that works best for you.

  11. Linda Pennell says

    It’s interesting the things we humans get hung up on. Sharon, I completely understand your love affair with pen and paper, albeit for different reasons. Because I was a typing dropout, I resisted the computer much longer than was logical or sensible. These days I can’t imagine writing without one. Now, if I could just overcome my tendency toward dyslexic typing….

  12. Ray Pace says

    Since Macs came into my writing life, my handwriting has gone completely to Hell, not that it was much to begin with. I love my Mac. The one drawback: when I autograph books for people it looks like an illiterate chicken strolled across the page.

  13. says

    This was a great piece :-) While I haven’t broken up with Mac, I’ve always gone back and forth between paper/pen and Mac. When words aren’t coming with Mac, I move to paper, and notes and ideas flow again. Next to my Mac, right now, is a small mountain of paper notes.

    Embrace the back and forth — since you’ll have to go back to Mac eventually if you’re going to share what you’re writing :-)

  14. Lorraine says

    Wow! Paper?! Outrageous and brilliant! Thanks.
    I’m going to do that with a part I’m stuck on right now in my novel.

  15. says

    The way you felt about Mac is exactly how I felt about mine. Great post. I too have turned to paper for idea generation. Now, I need to control my compulsion to buy that next perfect notebook/journal.

  16. says

    Delightful post, Sharon! I’m a diehard paper lover, too. I find the ideas get strangled by the inner editor if I use my keyboard. Cheers for whatever works. ; )

  17. says

    Wow…what a sad day it will be when I put aside my old worn vinyl notepad, and just sit in front of a computer while my fingers fly blindly across the keyboard. No more putting on my helmet, after placing my book bag and purse in my removable bike basket, and climbing on my old trusty, Paul Frank Julius beach cruiser, with the blue butterfly bell. No more cruising down the street and taking notice of people (nodding, smiling or waving), changes in my neighborhood (ghostly vacant buildings being re-birthed), noticing the flower that has finally thrown it’s petals to the sky, and smell the garlic-infused, and barbecued seared meats, or the pretty soft smell of baby-fresh dryer sheets. No more settling down for a while in my favorite coffee shop to share in and enjoy the barista camaraderie, before I spill out my observations of life onto my humble notepaper, giving it my personal touch of pen on paper, with writing that no one can imitate. I better stop now and get off my computer…I’ve got some living to do.

  18. says

    I, too, have been aware lately as to how much the laptop (not a Mac, decidedly, but a 3 1/2 year old Dell) can be a hindrance to creativity. The last time I tried to write a story on a legal pad, I didn’t like it… it went too slowly and my hand hurt after a few pages. But… maybe the issue is me. Writing on paper is a way of slowing down. And, I’ve heard lately, that the brain makes better connections and we write better sentences if we’re forming each letter by hand instead of typing them out. Definitely something I will continue to try! As Thoreau said: Simplify, simplify, simplify!


  19. Jenny Tavernier says

    Old School! While I love Mic, I really cannot comfortable write more than comments on it. I am usually busier with memos and full business reports, which associate Mic with different thinkwrite. Dry, precise, boring and such. Even my thinking/ dreaming was getting formatted into virtual rectangles and squares. I was actually kind of horrified and angry when I realized this! So I really got back into (my) writing again.
    ….. I wrote by hand. It was awful! (And all I had to scribble were random vents, (think practice/morning pages, etc.) BUT! I had forgotten the sheer addiction to paper, and implement moving on paper, (or margins, or off it, just the feel OF.
    …..My handwriting was atrocious, painful, illegible, and caused me to vent even more, which meant I was going in the write direction. 2 weeks, and then one morning, I realized my “practice” had strengthened my hand. The words, legible. And it was portable. And there was no backlit screen leaving my eyes in bloody agony. And I wasn’t jumping between mouse and keyboard, a major irritation. And it was a heck of a lot more comfortable. I could grab my notebook, and could curl up, or flee.

    I dream differently in different physical positions. I too found myself honing, as far as getting it down closer to what I wanted, naturally. There was an amazing pride growing. I started yearning for days of yore where there were stamps and real handwritten letters and crisp (or smudged) sheets. I missed feeling the author in the pages. I am one who dreams and expands with the hand stuff. I don’t like the hard stuff – such as desk surface, edges poking, corners, hard seat, (no matter how cushioned.) I don’t like being stuck in one position welded to a chair, which ensures correct posture or else.

    I cringe at the transcribing part, but realized if I am that excited about something I’ve written, never a chore! The imagination meat time investment is done, pretty much and the map is there. I know there are all kinds of apps now, that can do this for you. Saw a blog just yesterday, taking handwriting (on a tablet or scan, whatever electronic) to text. But since budget is tight, and I am an immensely practical Capricorn, if I am going to spend, I want a Neo 2, (Alpha smart) – which is a great little portable typing/word-processor that downloads with a flick of a USB. Take or throw it anywhere. Real keyboard, pretty full size. It is small and thin. No real maintenance or snardy costly batteries that have to be recharged. (Triple aaa’s = 700hours.) No internet. Bare bones. Lots of storage. No bells and whistles. Just type. Anywhere. I figure being in a lust relationship with portable writing, portable real keyboard typing transcription, at large, would be a natural next step. No wifi needed. River, woods, cafe, bus, train. Then editing on the big boy.

    The biggest thing I got out of restoring handwriting, (aside from TIME SAVED from the internet), was that it has real rewards. Practice, while painful for a bit, yields a maneuverable and smooth fast fist of fingers and wrist, (and that control shows up surprisingly in other areas. WOW!) It can qualify as exercise, even. There is a joy in handmade blood and tears and sweat. It renders writing back into a direct work of art, and I do need to feel connected. Mic doesn’t really do that for me. Mic is great for the speed of the fix and communication of. (All the irritating stuff.) And of course, graphic arts, but that is a whole ‘nother story!

    Thank you for the Cheer for Handwriting. So glad to know I am not the only one who cherishes certain dinosaur relationships.

  20. says

    I didn’t want to shop, but my Toshibas were dying. One had viruses that wouldn’t heal; the other had keyboard letters that stuck.
    In the second-hand laptop store, the two PC technicians were young. After conversation about Seoul and Beijing, each confessed they used a Mac @ home.

    Next at the new London Drugs, the salesguy with long hair and a blue shirt that strained at the buttons, waxed poetic on the elegance of the MacBook Pro. His words, “You gotta go. The trip to the Apple Store in the Pacific Centre is like a visit to the Taj Mahal.”

    I am a boomer, a cougar, not a mallrat. My worldview has limited bandwidth — fashion outstrips humanity, and sales steal souls.
    But something had to be done. So I switched my hikers for leg-fitting black leather boots with a Cuban heel.

    I enter the wide threshold of stale air and florescent lighting. Twenty feet into the coffin-shaped store, I sniff the hormones of Macgeniuses.

    There are gaggles of 20 somethings touching devices in the pumped up cacophony of the place. A trace of the music streams in from head office. I bump bodies as I inch farther into the core. I shoot a nervous twitch at the security man. He smiles back. Then mumbles under the microphone of his headset, “I’m PC.”
    My lips part. Lower jaw drops. Cheeks redden. “Hmm,” I’m flummoxed. Is he telling me he is politically correct or could he be interested? He winks. At me. “I’m Bill. I make sure that no one leaves with unpaid…”
    “How’s it going?” Ty, the skinny salesboy interrupts with his cool Apple talk. Yes, he fawns over me with his patter protocols.
    His soft sell left my mind picking through apples:
    the Beatles’ green logo, bobbing on Halloween, 
Eve’s sin.

    There it was the transparent white apple missing one bite on the silver laptop. The greener pasture. Sharon, I un-zipped my wallet, crossed the fence and plucked the apple. I purchased a computer for more than twice the price of a new PC with Windows 8.

    3 months into it, I am a member of this icult, which involves ilife, iphotos, iworks, itunes, iweb, igotta get out of it. When I empty the trash of MacBook, the artificial sound of paper crunching comes from the speaker. I want to slap it silly for thinking it’s so smart.

    So far, I’ve met with 12 trainers who trade me off as punishment. Those MacKids don’t always agree on their “work arounds” but in the bigger picture each is a true devotee. With skin that never sees the light of day, they spend their days off playing with their iPads and stupid phones.

    For the extra $100, these youngsters guide me through the “intuitive” hell of Mac OS X Version 10.8.2 and listen to my confused frustration. At each one-on-one appointment, I point and click and rant about the horrors of my files with the same transfer date and the jumble of my photo events. I need chronology in my life. Why does ilife have to be so full of hidden pitfalls?

    I tell myself to breathe deeply. But when I boot the bloody machine, the on-button blows its sound and makes my eyes tear. The conflict begins.

    I experience a heavy dose of language interference syndrome. My fingers want to move like they used to on the PC, instead of what the Mac requires. It makes me want to throw the machine out a window. But in the Mac store, surprise, surprise, Steve thought of everything. There are “No Windows on Premises.”

    My arthritic fingers skim the track-pad clumsily. This time, I have purchased iSkin, a form-fitting silicone condom to save the keyboard. I’m not convinced that I can live without windows. But now I am tethered to this metaphorical bandwagon.
    I thirst for that sip of sacred Kool-Aid that will make me sing “Hallelujah” Mac and turn me into a true believer. I’m not there yet, so I hold BG, my security-man very close. At least he knows where and how to push my right-click button.

  21. Denise Willson says

    “They say that breaking up is hard to do.”

    Be glad you can’t hear me singing this. :) Your post made me smile.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  22. says

    I am still resisting the lure of the Macbook… although, having just had to drag my laptop-posing-as-a-desktop for a training course and nearly breaking my back in the process, I am now reconsidering it. But I do like jotting down ideas in notebooks – the prettier, swankier, the better. And I am getting very particular about pens too, for some reason…

  23. Lisa B. says

    Two words: Self Control. It’s a free app that lets you set up sites you’re not “allowed” to go to during your writing time. You choose the sites and set the timer, but then there’s no going back. No logging out, no restarting—nothing will free you from Self Control. But after a while, I stopped needing it. I got in the groove.

    I still use journals, three or four of them, as well scraps of paper when I’m out and about to jot down notes, scenes and corrections. But my Mac lets me write more quickly, legibly, and in an organized way. (The Find function, for example, is essential to how I work.)

    Maybe my brain isn’t as sharp as some people’s, but I feel I’m a better writer with my computer. I’d be lost without it.

  24. says

    Love this post, Sharon, so you’re back to paper, the goold old dinausor days…

    But what happens when you have to RE-TYPE all that handwritten stuff into your Mac? You haven’t told us what happened or didn’t you get there yet? It’s crossing the Rubicon! Yeah, dreadful! I’ve done it (pretty much for the same reasons as you) but when I had to retype all the damn stuff again into my computer, I positively hated it!

    But maybe you’ve got a secretary to do that chore? Or better yet, a slave? LOL, I dream of slaves, alas that time is bygone too!

  25. says

    It’s really awesome article, Sharon.

    I feel the same, when I need to draw a new graphic design or write some articles on my laptop, but in case of my old paper notebook all this things grew much faster and better. Even if I RE-TYPE or RE-DRAW it later.

    A few years ago I have started to learn a calligraphy, and now I can say that my inspiration works in my arms, not only in my fingertips.

    In conclusion, on my opinion, paper fits better than any gadget to be a canvas of your future work of art.

  26. says

    We used pen and paper once while at a book signing to work on a second novel. It was actually rather fun—that is, until we had to transcribe it onto the computer… However, we do use pen and paper often to jot down ideas, which is rather handy when the computer is turned off. Paper is also good if you need a quick map for a fantasy landscape, or if you need to work on a timeline to organize two different plot sections within the same story.

  27. Leslie R. says

    This post really resonates with me. When I decided to come back to writing after a long time away, I tried and tried to write on my computer. I could stare at a blank screen for hours, starting and stopping, trying to compose the perfect sentence. Then one day I was waiting outside a professor’s office, and I wrote more on the back of a piece of scratch paper in fifteen minutes than I’d written in two hours on my computer the night before. It seems very strange to me, that I have so much less fear of getting it wrong on paper than I do on the computer, where it is obviously much easier to fix things later, but I do. I just feel like I think better on paper. I don’t know if I’ll ever want to write a complete draft on paper, but I definitely use it to write out scenes, sketches, and lots and lots of notes.