One thing you might not know about me is that when I sit down to write I often begin with this weird old method of putting a pen to paper. Maybe it seems archaic, but for me it works. I hand write the words, think about them, maybe scribbled edits, and then I transcribe them onto my computer. I guess it makes sense, because I seem to be the kind of person who uses his hands to make stuff. Like a lot of things in my life, there’s a story behind my preferred writing method.
Once upon a time I wrote a lot of letters. I was a traveler, meaning, I rarely stayed in the same place for more than a few days, weeks, months. I lived like this for a lot of years — you probably didn’t know this about me, either. I lived as cheaply as I could, and I’ve done a lot of jobs, lived in a lot of places — Portland, Seattle, New York, Kansas City, Boulder/Denver, New Orleans, Texas, Alaska, New Haven, and then in Ireland for a year, mostly in Galway; Barcelona for a few weeks; a couple of years in Italy, mostly in the town of Padova. I’ve also spent a bunch of time in Mexico and Central America. Just wandering, mostly. It’s a long story, which, I’m getting to it.
This was about a dozen years of my life, and for the first few years I hadn’t even heard of email (yes, I’m that old). I don’t remember exactly what year it was that I got my first email account, sometime in about 1995 or ’96. I wasn’t necessarily slow to take to it, but there weren’t often internet cafes in the places I went. In fact, my preference was to go to places where there wasn’t even dependable electricity. The way I kept in contact with people, mostly, was through letters. It made sense to me, because all I needed was a notebook, a pen, an envelope (which, in a pinch, I could make one), a stamp, a friend with an address to whom I could send it.
This was also before digital cameras, and I had some interesting ideas about photographs. I told myself (and others, if they’d listen) that I carried all the images I needed in my head. I said that cameras were just laziness, an excuse not to pay close attention to what you were looking at. I argued that if you exercised your mind, and looked carefully you wouldn’t need a camera, that memory is only as strong as you make it, and only functions well if you use it. I thought remembering things was like exercise, like you could take memory to the gym or something, force it into shape by doing reps, squats, crunches. I was kind of a dick about it. It was a bull-headed, pre-Instagram notion that I’ve mostly gotten past. I see what my point was, but still. I’ve learned that if you make yourself unlikable people probably aren’t going to listen to you. And besides, age has taught me about memory loss, and what few photos I have of my traveling days, I cherish, wishing I had at least just few more.
But so instead of photos I wrote letters. And one of my goals with letters was to use words to describe the scenery. Being like any other young traveler, I was searching for myself as much as I wanted to learn about this planet on which we live, its people and places. I was very existential, so a lot of the landscape I described in my letters — too much, I’d say — was located on the inside of my head.
The important point here isn’t that I may have been a crappy, self involved writer. What’s important is that my thoughts were transformed into words on the page, and these pages were artifacts, whether I thought about it this way or not. I think these letters were my first real practice of hand making something that I shared with others. And I like to think I got better at it over the years. In any case — I think this is the same with any practice — the more I wrote, the more I learned how to write. And the reason I kept doing it was, first, because I enjoyed it. Not always, but in my best moments I took a lot of care in the writing, and I mean a ridiculous amount of care, and I did learn that when I really put myself into what I was writing it maximized the joy I got out of it. And I’d like to think that it was these careful letters that my people connected with most, got the best imagery from, the most accurate portrait of how I was, where I was, and who, in whatever crazy situation I was in. Sometimes, but not always, I got it right.
The practice of writing by hand has stayed with me. I think the reason I still do it is that I’ve learned, over all the years, how to slow my thoughts enough that my hand can grab hold of their wings and lay them on the page. There’s more to it than that, of course, and it goes the other way, too: The speed of my hand helps rein in the spastic nature of my thoughts. It gives them some parameters so they’re not bouncing all over the place. If you’ve ever read anything about Buddhist philosophy you’ve probably heard mention of the concept of ‘Monkey Mind’. I feel like this is about the best metaphor for my thoughts — they jump around, get into things, are rabidly curious and impulsive, toss stuff aside, break the delicate things, swing from the rafters, eat all the cookies, crap on the counter and then run off, etc..
The image of the monkey on my head badge was taken directly from this concept. It’s a symbol of all that runs wild in my head, but do you notice how calmly the monkey sits? And that piece of his own tail in his hand? I like to think of it as a symbol of him holding a pen, of him writing with his own body, a way of recording himself, his stories. Although, it could be that it’s a pacifier of sorts: Holding onto a piece of himself as a reminder that he exists. But come to think of it, is there any real difference?
The forced effort of sitting with a pen can help calm my erratic thoughts. It gives them a job to do; it allows freedom through some sort of discipline — I can write about whatever I want to write about, but the deal I’ve made with myself is, if I’m going to make the effort, then I don’t want to write gibberish. If I translate my brain’s erratic mess directly to the page, if I could write or type at the speed of thought, there wouldn’t be anything worth reading. It’d be like a Rorschach blot, just a splash of language without any through line. So my hand writes as fast as it can and still be legible, and my mind slows the language down enough to be comprehensible, and somewhere in the middle the twain shall meet, and throw a little party.