On Digital Handwriting

Something like a year ago I committed to myself to make an honest attempt at adopting an entirely digital creative process. Digital workflows attracted me for a number of reasons, between sensing a bit of the future in them and not having to lug around paper notebooks anymore. So the constituents of my usual work-bag changed; I dropped my trusty moleskine notebooks for a tablet. First Android (Google Nexus 7) and then iOS (iPad Mini). Thanks to the Evernote and Penultimate apps, both provided an excellent handwriting platform with cloud backups and easy access. For the better part of a year I used both exhaustively and they worked well. I recommend them highly to anyone interested in tablet-based writing.

And yet, I find my digital writing experiment at an end.

Handwriting everything on a tablet certainly made things easier to store, carry and reference. Stylus sliding on screen felt futuristic, smooth and workflow-transcendent. And it was fine for activities devoid of higher purpose like taking notes in a meeting. But it fell short in my primary reasons for writing.

Journaling went quickly but felt flat and unremarkable. Each entry slipped into place in a digital storehouse, utilitarian and soulless. The immediate experience became one of making gray marks on a gray screen, efficiently but with no lasting effect. No staying power or emotional impact. And nothing approaching the depth of paper journaling.

Other creative work, fiction or non, turned out much the same. Piecing character and plot together in the reassuringly backlit tablet environment simply didn’t carry the same weight internally for me. Structurally and aesthetically paper and app are nearly the same. And god knows I’d rather just carry a tablet and leave the notebooks at home.

But not if the system doesn’t work.

I missed paper too much, similar to how missing bacon ended my five years of vegetarianism. The new habit better for me and yet bearing some indelible mark of inauthenticity that keeps getting in the way.

I missed accidentally staining a page with coffee or water. I missed the resistance of pen across paper, a resistance accompanied by the confidence that ink was rolling. I missed, as I see now, flipping to the next page in a notebook with fresh ink of a previous page bleeding through a bit, that tangible continuity of work being done.

There’s an inefficiency in paper, between the friction of the pen and the frantic search for a precious note. Flipping from page to page scanning for just a few words that connect with something currently in my head. The tactile nature of that scan and the time it takes to cross over past mental landscapes, portraits, reliefs.

Spending most of the past year almost wholly focused on digital handwriting underscored the reifying nature of writing in pen and ink, that making or treating of the abstract as real and concrete. There’s little functional difference between the two methods but scattered scrawlings in a notebook help constitute what stays pale and static in a digital context.

It’s a surprising result given my early adoption of most things digital. But the process is the process.

I’m off to stain a few more notebook pages.