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.

The Physical Dimensions of Writing

Writing is a physical activity. This fact is quite well known to schoolchildren who write–with pencils and pens–diligently, and at length on their notebooks. (It must have been known too, to Georges Simenon, whose fingers must have needed dousing in ice water after his daily ritual of prolific pencil-fueled writing.) But it is even common knowledge to those among their cohort who now type on tablet and laptop keyboards; the wrists ache, the fingers are bruised. The exhaustion that results after a long spell of writing is not just that of brain cells wearily picking themselves off the cranial floor, but also that of limbs strained by the constant expression of the writer’s commands. And then, somehow, later in life, overcome by the over-intellectualizing of this particular mode of interaction with the world, the notion emerges that writing is all brain and no body, that a disembodied intelligence is at play, that writing enables an escape from physical confines of the body–which is true in a way, but not if taken literally.

Small wonder then, that writers are acutely conscious of their bodies when they write and keenly attuned and sensitive to the physical channels through which their words make their way to paper or screen. I’ve written here about my writing experiences with a fountain pen on paper; the modern counterparts of that implement, the word processor, the computer monitor, the keyboard, are just as deserving of attention.

One way to hint at my sensitivity to the physical dimension of writing on a computer is to note that a central reason why I will never buy a Mac is because I do not like its machines’–whether desktop or laptop–keyboards. Their keys do not afford my fingers the right kind of tactile response; they do not provide me the feedback that I subconsciously seek when I press down on them. I have had favorites in the past: the AT&T 4425 and IBM 3270 terminals were perhaps the  most deeply satisfying in terms of their immediate responsiveness, in their ‘give’ and in how they seemed to facilitate the rapid movement of my fingers over them. (I’m not a trained touch typist but over the years my fingers have, to some extent, internalized the locations of letter on keyboards and now move with some facility over them.)

These preferences mean that I very quickly disdain, or approve of, particular writing spaces or implements because of how they generate both a physical and mental space for writing. The ergonomic comfort of a chair and desk are obviously factors, but just as important is an ineffable sense of connectedness–in the right sort of way–to my writing machine and through it, to the visible word that is the result of my writing. Thus, because I do not like writing on laptop keyboards, and will only do so when absolutely forced to do so, I have hardly ever written in coffee-shops or on the  move. For better or worse, I’m desk-bound. (In the post just linked to, I noted this same physical aspect of writing.)

This physical dimension of writing is important for the writing process in the simplest of ways: to start writing, you must place your hands on the media through which you write. Put pen to paper or put fingers to keyboard.

Once contact is made, the game can begin.