Readers respond: writing implements (and the Central Park Mississippi picnic)

I’ve received a pile of responses to a recent post about my choice of writing materials.

Daniel Raeburn, author of a brief study of cartoonist Chris Ware, writes:

Bravo! With everyone ballyhooing moleskine notebooks and their preposterous, bogus Hemingway-and-Chatwin marketing mythology, I can’t thank you enough for taking a stand on behalf of the black and white marbled composition book–the working man’s (and woman’s) moleskine.

I’ve been a comp book purist for more than a decade. The Mead ones are best, I think, because of the all-important rounded corners which minimize dinging in your book bag and just plain feel cool. Also, the Mead ones have heavy-duty, stiff board covers that allow you to write in them anywhere, even reporter-style when no surface is available. You can rest coffee cups and icy, sweating drinks on them with no worries.

The sewn binding always lies flat. Key.

And the high-acid paper is a plus, really. My oldest journals and workbooks now have a warm, yellow tone, as befits their age. The mellow yellow is somehow reassuring. The patina makes my bad sentences less humiliating, much in the same way that washed-out, overly yellow polaroid film makes those bad 70s and 80s outfits we wore less humiliating. It’s all in the past, obviously.

I don’t want to rag too much on the archival-quality notebooks, which do feel good in the hand. And I’m in favor of any fad that gets people writing, and writing in analog to boot. But really: unless you’re John Cheever, Samuel Pepys, or Picasso, the idea that you need an archival-quality journal or scratch pad is, uh, optimistic, not to mention expensive.

I’m writing a book about underground cartoonists and the first thing I did after signing the contract was purchase 8 comp books, one for each of the 7 chapters and one for recording overall thoughts, notes, an introduction, etc.. It’s the perfect way to keep an organized bank of ideas and drafts. All together they fit in only slightly more space than a laptop, weigh about the same, and never need batteries. A ziploc baggie and they’re good to go on holiday anywhere rainy.

In a follow-up message Raeburn says that the Moleskine blog “positively reeks of an (incredibly effective) viral marketing campaign. If ever I learn html I’ll set up a Comp Book web site with encomia, photo-sharing, user forums, etc.”

Mary takes me to task for spending $2 on each composition book:

Big spender. Truly thrifty writers know to wait for the Target back to school sales. For one week every year, usually late July or early August, they sell 80 page spiral bound notebooks (Mead wide and college ruled) for ten cents apiece. Vets know that the 20 piece limit counts separately for wide and college, so you can get 40 notebooks for four dollars. They invariably sell out, but you can get rain checks….

A year’s worth of notebooks for under ten bucks. It allows you to guiltlessly start a new notebook for each idea/project.

And it means you have money left over to buy a Moleskine as your carry-around jot things down notebook.

For the longest time, there was no Target accessible by NYC subway. But now — at least after the surreal opening of a Brooklyn store — I have no excuse. Thanks for the tip, Mary.

Poet Robert Daseler, an email pal, sympathizes with my inability to write in fancy journals:

of course you can’t compose on a sheet of deckle-edged, all-cotton, laid paper. The sheet of paper makes you want to write something brilliant and imperishable that will represent you well decades from now when it lies in a display case in the lobby of a large library, possibly the Widener Library at Harvard, but thinking about that display case distracts you from the thing you want to write about, which may be a disconsolate girl waiting in a hot car on a dustry road in south Florida for a prostitute to drive her home. It is impossible to concentrate your thoughts on that girl in the hot car while all of posterity is looking over your shoulder and waiting to see what imperishable words you set down on that sheet of expensive deckle-edged paper. No, you have to be able to wad up and throw away a sheet of paper as soon as you realize that what you’ve written on it is complete tripe….

Perhaps because I began my career at a newspaper, I find it natural to push my thoughts through my fingertips into a keyboard. At The Middletown Press we worked on office Remington typewriters, and we typed our stories on the cheapest kind of wood-pulp paper, using rubber cement to glue the bottom of the first page to the top of the second, and the bottom of the second to the top of the third, so that a feature story that went on for a couple thousand words would make a scroll that, unwound, would stretch clear across the newsroom. These scrolls of paper, when ready to be typeset, would be rolled tight and stuffed into a plastic tube, which was then inserted into a pneumatic pipe that carried it back to the composing room. I loved hearing the plastic tube bumping along the pipe.


Andrew Stevens of 3AM Magazine suffers from dyspraxia. He says:

I rarely use any kind of writing implement at all, aside from to make very rough notes on occasion and even then I tend to use initials/abbr. to get round this.

So, in effect, I am justified in my keyboard dependency. Thank god computers became widespread in my youth (even if I barely passed English at school and had to do a resit to get full marks and a degree in journalism).


Scott McLemee prefers writing longhand, and points me to an old article in which he relates poet Ted Hughes’ anecdote about judging a children’s writing contest:

Hughes recalled that the entries once tended to be two or three pages long. “But in the early 1980s,” he said, “we suddenly began to get seventy and eighty page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent — a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring….”

In each case, the kid had composed the miniature magnum opus on a word processor.

“What’s happening,” according to Hughes, “is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page became more flexible and externalized, the writer [could] get down almost every thought or extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated.”


Novelist Katharine Weber defends the Blackwing pencil:

I have about thirty Blackwings left in a secret hoard. I love them. The erasers are like Dentyne. They are an atavistic object for me, because my beloved grandmother (the composer Kay Swift) used them exclusively for writing music. I suppose for me they have always signified in that way — serious pencils for serious work, to be maintained and deployed like a surgeon’s scalpel. I use a Blackwing, and only a Blackwing, for corrections to manuscript pages when I am in the revising process (as I am right now).


L.J. puts in a good word for Mead’s “Fat Li” Notebook” – holds 200 college-ruled sheets in a solid-color poly plastic cover (if only they made them small enough to fit into a jeans back pocket) and the Sanford Uni-ball .2mm Roller ball pen — really smooth ink flow with a thin but solid black line. As for my practice of tossing drafts, she says:

I keep the scribblings — don’t like the idea of everything being wiped out by a power failure or something. Yes, fire & flood can damage hard copies, but I feel like I have a better chance of protecting or rescuing actual notebooks than I do salvaging

Good point. Every time I edit a file, I send myself the updated draft via email. Honestly, I do this not so much from fear of a hard drive crash as to ward off the possibility that I could destroy a manuscript by pressing “delete” in a fit of pique.

Nick Kocz uses the Pentel Hybrid Gel Roller, blue ink:

Why? Because the ink rolls out of the tip in nice, liquid flourishes that dry quickly on the paper. For a few shining moments, the words that I write really appear to be significant. Then the ink dries into what might be called a dull matte finish, making my words look decidedly less significant.

The Gel Roller’s clear plastic stem lets you see just how much ink you’re using. And let me tell you, baby, this pen is a gas guzzler! Ink is applied so thickly to the paper that a two-hour writing session might exhaust half of the pen’s ink. Even the most blocked writer will be impressed by how much of a dent they make on the ink level.


And on a completely unrelated note, Susan Thomsen of the new Chicken Spaghetti blog (about children’s books), tells me that the annual Central Park Mississippi Picnic happens this Saturday, June 11.

She also explains the origin of her blog’s name:

Since you’ve spent so much time in the South, you’ve probably had chicken spaghetti casserole, which is (was?) very popular at ladies’ church luncheons. Always served with a salad of spinach, mandarin oranges, and red onions, with poppy-seed dressing.

My grandma would be so proud of you, Susan.


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