The Pencil Eraser As Proustian Madeleine

I prepare for classes by reading the texts I have assigned. As I read, on occasion, I make notes in the margins or underline words and sentences. Not too vigorously or extensively, because I still suffer from old scruples and niceties having to do with a fetishistic respect for the printed word; it took me a long time to get over my hesitancy  about marking up books. In graduate school, it took some doing for me to mark up even printed or photocopied versions of journal articles; I always preferred make notes in a separate notebook. I cannot, still, markup a book with a pen, but I have mustered up enough courage and wherewithal to mark up text with a pencil. (Suitably sharpened.)

Now, writing with a pencil is a curious sensation. I hardly ever write any more with one. So the mere contact of hand on pencil, pressing down on paper, feeling, watching, and sensing lead marks appear on paper and arrange themselves into shapes pregnant with meaning is an interesting enough experience. But it gets better.

Sometimes I make notes that are incorrect. Sometimes I call out an author in the margins with a ‘!’ or a ‘?’–even an odd ‘?!’ here and there–and sometimes with a more elaborate expression of surprise, disbelief, or skepticism, and then find out, a few paragraphs later, that I spoke too soon. In those cases, I shamefacedly return to the margin and erase my note, my mark-up.

When I first did so, I noticed a curious sensation manifest itself, one even more peculiar than the sensation manifested by my writing with a pencil. When I erase pencil marks, I apply eraser to paper and scrub, hard. Then, I brush off the accumulated residue of paper, lead and eraser material, sometimes blowing it off the paper. These archaic bodily sensations, these antique bodily memories, this embodied set of memories, these were all part of my normal arsenal of daily sensations and bodily interactions at a particular point in my life–schooldays mostly, of course, but also time spent at home with my books. Locked up in that eraser and my use of it–just like it is in pieces of music–is a kind of Proustian madeleine then.

Using an eraser summoned up memories of notes taken in classrooms, of sharpening pencils, of homeworks completed late at night, of correcting drafts of essays and exams, of bemoaning the induction of black smudges in place of neat handwriting, of painfully wringing my hand after a furious bout of scribbling and erasing. (Confession: I never used the term erasing when I was in school; then, I used a ‘rubber’ and rubbed. And yes, that nomenclature is a leading contender for hilarious differences in American English and the English spoken elsewhere.)

So it was via that eraser that an older being suddenly emerged and poked its head around. There’s always multiple selves in us; many lie dormant; and some, if subjected to the right stimulus, the right madeleine, can remind us of their presence, and of the time that they were formed and made their way into our being.

Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

We often dream of perfection, but we rarely, if ever, achieve it. There was one exceedingly minor business, in one all too brief period,  in which I did attain such heights: my spelling prowess in my early school grades. I do not know if I ever attained the competency levels of those who excel at the national spelling bees that continue to enthrall so many folks every year, but there was no doubt I was a contender. Classroom testing of spelling prowess was carried out by dint of the dreaded ‘dictation test’: our teacher would read out loud, first, a list of words to be spelled out, and then, a short passage. We listened and wrote.

Through, I think, the fifth grade, (after which such ‘dictation tests’ ceased), I maintained a perfect record in my spelling examinations. I did not spell a single word wrong. (I also never suffered a single spelling correction in any of my essay assignments–this record ran through my high school years.) Indeed, I was often puzzled by the fact that my classmates did not score similar grades. What was the problem–did they not know what the word looked in question like? My spelling prowess was not a secret; word of my never-ending stream of perfect scores in these tests was not slow in spreading among my mates–we were a nerdy bunch. Needless to say, I lapped up the ensuing admiration.

Interestingly enough, I only encountered spelling difficulties–of a kind–once I began using word processors. My physical connection with the medium of writing changed, rewiring my linkages to the written word. I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated against the introduction of spelling errors.) Identifying and correcting these added labors to my writing that I was unfamiliar with.

The differences between the two modes of writing were many–perhaps too many to list here. Some were immediately relevant to my spelling difficulties, to the business of orthographic errors. In writing with a word processor, I interacted with a keyboard; my fingers found keys and transferred letters to the screen. In writing with a pen, I traced out the shapes of the letters, my hands pressing directly upon the surface of writing. A word processor always produced a printed draft that I read and corrected before handing in the final version; perhaps I grew careless, trusting myself to remove spelling mistakes from the final version. A fountain pen produced a near-final version in ink that was not easily or cleanly corrected; the tracings of my pen were infected with this awareness. (The introduction of spelling and grammar checkers in word processors might have made things worse for some folks, tempted now to plunge ahead and correct later as the offending words are flagged in rude highlights.)

The valorization of spelling prowess seems, for some reason, a curiously old-fashioned affectation. I’m not sure why. A misspelled word still seems an abomination of sorts.

Writing: The Tools Change, the Neurosis Endures

Philip Hensher has written a book–The Missing Ink–on handwriting. In it, according to Jeremy Harding, he:

[T]akes the view that we impress our individuality on a page when we make signs with a pen or pencil, that our culture is reaffirmed as we persist in the practice, and that the production of handwritten texts is a rich expression of both. If handwriting disappears, he warns, ‘some other elements of civilised life may die with this art, or skill, or habit.’

Like most people I know, I write on a word processor. The quality of my writing, when it comes up for judgment, is almost always a matter of content, not form. But there was a time when the form of my written word was a subject of active external critique too: my handwriting used to be the subject of commentary, feedback, revision and sometimes, intense attempts at makeovers.

I learned cursive writing the way most students of my generation did: by filling out workbooks supplied to me by parents. I traced out, steadily and persistently, page after page of model sentences, showing them to my parents when done, and then moving on to the next assignment. Fortunately, this drudgery did not last too long. There was ample opportunity for practice with my school assignments, the finished versions of which invariably provoked comments on the handwriting on display from those who graded them.

My handwriting’s quality occupied a steady middle point between the truly excellent and the dreadful. I was dimly aware of the abyss below and the summits above; I struggled to stay out of the former but could never quite make it to the latter. Not that I tried too hard.  A steadfast devotion to the adequate seems to have been a hallmark of my academic work even back then. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t envious of those whose writing was excellent; I craved the gasps of admiration from our peers and the praise of my teachers. I just couldn’t rouse myself to do anything about it. In that sense, perhaps, my handwriting is revelatory: it often starts off strong and then trails off, its form decaying as the page progresses, thus perhaps acting as revelation of my lack of commitment to tasks undertaken but not completed.

I did mount a couple of serious attempts to change my handwriting. Most notably in the tenth grade, when struck by the pristine beauty of a classmate’s ‘printed’ style, I ditched the flowing model I was most accustomed to, and took his style on. I stuck with it for a year before finding a retreat to my original form more conducive to my sanity. The change had been too much work.

I began using a word processor late: in graduate school. The undergraduate years had consisted almost entirely of  mathematics, statistics and the occasional essay-based exam, all of which I completed with a fountain pen. Since then, my handwriting has, I think, deteriorated, a process I have attempted to rectify on a periodic basis–most notably, by using a fountain pen again–but with little success.

To get back to Hensher’s point, I do not think my ‘individuality’ has been lost by my exclusively writing on a word processor; what is most distinctive about my thoughts comes through in that medium too. But what we do lose by the effacement of handwriting is a distinctive aesthetic pleasure that comes from the beautifully handwritten page. And by taking on the possibility of revisions allowed by the word processor perhaps we do shackle ourselves to the endless draft. And yet, as Harding points out, this can scarcely be blamed on technology; the non-stop reviser of writing came well before the wordprocessor.

The tools change, the neurosis endures.