So I’m sitting at work the other day, taking down a few notes about a problem I’d been working on, when the co-worker to my left leaned over and made a joke about my habit of writing things in an actual engineering notebook with an actual pen. Nobody does that anymore! That’s what computers are for! Yeah, I get that, but it’s just not the way things work for me. Besides, I type enough throughout the course of a single day. Turning to the pen and paper gives by wrists and tendons a nice break, adding some different movements to the mix. It’s a kind of carpel tunnel insurance policy. That and I tend to remember things better if I’ve written them down. Sure, what I’ve written isn’t searchable, but “retrieval” has never been the point to that activity anyway.
I’ve always had a sort of pen and paper fetish. I remember spending a lot of time at the university bookstore going through all of the writing implements, scribbling notes in both block letters and long hand on the sample sheets until the perfect instrument was decided upon: the Scheaffer cartridge pen. It had the perfect amount of friction when dragged over the legal paper I took classroom notes on. This was around the same time that I wrote letters to friends on this gorgeous light blue linen paper. There was sealing wax involved too, a nice big “S” on the back of the envelope.
This does all sound like ancient history…writing on paper? Letters? C’mon, people don’t even bother with email anymore!
The funny thing is that I’m writing this on a brand spankin’ new computer: a sleek Macbook Air. It’s so nice I can hardly believe it’s mine. With the first two bits of customization out of the way (downloading and installing both Chrome and Spotify), I set out to write this essay. And what software am I using to perform this task? Microsoft Office? (Hell No! This is a Ballmer-free zone!) TextEdit? Open Office? Google Docs? Maybe some other swank Apple utility that begins with the letter “i”?
No. I’m using the ancient and extremely powerful Emacs. It’s basically a nerd’s editor. An old nerd’s editor. I was reading an article the other day about customizing your work environment and the author referred to Emacs as being a piece of “elderly” software. My objection was stopped dead in its tracks when I realized I’d been using Emacs since about 1986. Since Apple’s OS X is based (in part) on a flavor of Unix, I didn’t even have to install the editor. It was already on the system. When people ask me why I use Emacs, I tell them that it comes down to comfort and speed. Most user experiences involved heavy use of the mouse, interacting with buttons, scrollbars, and the like. When I’m working, I like to avoid those sorts of things, because they make me take my hands off the keyboard. It slows me down and makes my hands ache a little more at the end of the day.
I’m well aware of the contrasts in all of my tech behaviors. I work in the software world while mostly avoiding “modern” software when I can. I’ve just purchased a fancy computer with a very modern operating system and I’m using software written decades earlier. I love reading books but refuse to consider an e-reader. It’s not that I resist change, but I do know what works for me.
And after the novelty of this computer damps down, I’ve promised myself to get back to pencil & paper drafts. Some writers purchase specialized software that allows an immersive (and usually simplified) writing experience, with the temptations of things like font selection and formatting completely removed. I get that. In fact, Emacs shares some of those traits. But let’s face it, with a pencil and paper, the only real distractions are the sharpness of the lead, and the uncontrolled thoughts careening around in your head.