Writing on paper

The writing desk, closed
Here is the antique travel writing desk that my wife gave me for Christmas. (I have a thing for old, wooden boxes.) It’s about 12 inches wide, 8 inches long, and 4-1/2 inches tall, much bigger than a Mac Mini. It has a lock, but we do not have a key.

The outside is plain, unadorned, smooth wood, perhaps cherry. We know nothing about it, not when it was made or by whom, or where.

The writing desk, open
When you open it, you find that the two halves are not split evenly across the box, but at a slant, so that when it’s fully open the inner faces slope up to the inkwells and pen holder.

Whoever owned it before me had replaced the writing surface, no doubt leather and no doubt eaten away, with a nasty black felt, attached (as it turned out) with a spray adhesive. At least it was easy to remove, and I replaced it with real leather, firmly glued on with craft glue.

The writing desk, with lid open
Here you can see one of the lids lifted up to reveal the storage beneath. The lids are made of oak, with four or five fluted grooves cleanly and precisely etched around the writing area.

The two lids are held in place by the single piece of leather. The bottom half has a small brass latch that holds the lid in place as you lift it, the actual top half of the box, back into place.

Earlier this week I noticed that the long storage area in the middle had little notches on the side panels, which suggests to me that there was another little piece of wood that rested there, which makes sense. Pens could rest in that shallow area and not get banged around so much. I’ve bought a piece of thin birch plywood, some stain, and some red suede leather, and this weekend I will recreate that little shelf.


It was earlier this week that I actually got to put it to use. I was home all week with strep throat, and by Thursday I was looking for something to do. In the mail, I received a nice thank-you note from Paula Chambers, the fabulous once and future media specialist for the Governor’s Honors Program. She was thanking me for making the trek down to Bainbridge for her retirement party, and I thought, I know, I’ll write her a letter.

It must be understood that I am a stationery junkie. I love beautiful, elegant, or unusual stationery. I have lots of it.

But I do not write letters. Who does? And to whom? Almost all of the people with whom I want to share my thoughts are at the other end of a very short stream of electrons. Writing a letter is now a special effort for a special occasion… like having strep throat, I suppose.

So I fetched my best stationery: gray, 100% cotton rag paper, my name nicely stamped in dark green ink; envelopes lined with dark green paper; very Slytherin, very elegant. I thought I would start by stocking my writing desk, but no, the stationery is too wide. Very well, I’ll have it trimmed next week.

Out comes the fountain pen, and I begin writing. The leather is soft, and the pen pushes at the paper with a scratching sound that is amplified by the hollow wooden box beneath it. It is a struggle to make my handwriting even, legible, connected. More than once, the fingers that are more used to typing go awry and letters are pulled beyond recognition into shapes like twisted coat hangers. The word letter itself threatens to fall apart every time I write it: big loop, little loop, two no-loops, little loop, squiggle…

But I keep writing to my friend Paula, absorbed in the very act of putting pen to paper, and ideas about writing on paper emerge and wallow across the message. I’m afraid by the time I’ve finished, six pages in all, she must wonder what has possessed me.

I tell of the blog I found that led me to an artist on the web who was clearly excited to have discovered this absolutely amazing substitute for the Moleskine Cahiers notebook: take 8-1/2 x 11 paper, cut it in half, punch holes in it, and put it in a 3-ring binder! And all the comments were equally ecstatic, either having already tried this for themselves, or thrilled to have stumbled across such an incredible solution. “The thing I like about loose-leaf binders is that you can move stuff around in them.” And I thought, Is this satire?

Are these people for real? Do they live in some milieu where only Moleskine notebooks have even been considered, and a trip to the Staples on 42nd St, or more likely for this crew, on Water St, is a revelation? I’ve had a Moleskine, they’re perfect, they’re beautiful, they’re a gorgeous way to record your life and organize it, but the only way? Deliver me.

I myself have used so many different ways to record my ideas, my tasks, my appointments, that I can scarcely remember them all. I have, however, swung wildly between writing it all down in a succession of notebooks and planners, and typing it all in to whatever application seemed easiest to use at the time. Incredibly, I have never used a PDA, nor have I ever wanted to. It seemed to me to be too much duplication: I have a laptop, I have a black leather notebook that zips up, why would I need a clunky little device to replace either?

It seems to me that all the systems served me well, but it has been my written ones that have served me best. There’s something about the physicality of the writing, again, that is seductive. And overall, the black leather notebook is more likely to be right there with you, not needing a battery or a plug or a network or a printer. It opens immediately for your inspection of your completed duties and appointments (people to call, things to produce, other to do, things to buy, runs my adapted overprint of a Day Runner page), and you can see your successes and failures at a glance, and dutifully carry the failures over to the next day.

And the flipping of pages back and forth, moving through time like some kind of extradimensional being, lighting on today, calculating one month from now, skimming back, seeding necessary tasks along the way, until I reach today again and can release time’s flow back into its normal channel, now I know what I need to do next, only the flipping of pages really feels right.

And yet, when I returned home from Governor’s Honors this past July, the black leather notebook faded and by the end of August was gone. As I look at it now, I never used it past the middle of September. I didn’t even buy the 2005 calendar and run it through the printer to stamp it with my own structure of busy-ness.

It’s all back on the laptop now. Pristine, color-coded, carefully displayed and ready to beep when I’ve told it to.

But this writing, this pen against paper against leather over wood, this ridiculous New York artist who has saved the world with a 3-ring binder, even the act of opening the black leather notebook to find where I abandoned it, I crave the act of writing, the sewing up of past and present in scribbled hieroglyphs here and there across pages.

I think I may get myself another Moleskine notebook for the summer.

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