Friday, July 16, 2010


Some thoughts inspired by handing my nephew his first Moleskine.


Whether or not you want to be a "writer" you must write.  Inscribed on metal, incised on clay tablets, ink on paper, you must write.  Your life is an historic moment, a unique part of the vast tapestry and your story will be lost if you do not write it down.

To refuse to write is to choose to be forgotten.


Because your thoughts are important and anyone who tells you they are not is an idiot and/or someone trying to make a living by telling you that their thoughts are important.  

They are not. 

A careful study of history will astound you not because we know so much, but that we surmise so much from so little.

More has been forgotten than we will ever know.

Entire lives have been sucked into the void of time because those who lived them did not record them.  And even in a world where it seems that less and less goes unrecorded I think it’s actually getting worse rather than better.

Virtually nothing that you see here will still exist 100 years from now.  This blog, these web pages, all of these digital dots on digital screens will cease to be.  They will eventually blink out of existence, as obsolete as Geocities, recorded - if at all - in formats that are as inscrutable to future generations as cuneiform is to modern eyes and 5-inch floppies are to modern laptops.

Ironically, the Library of Congress has been given the Twitter archives, so if anything survives; it will not be the substance, but the soundbyte.


I am part of the leading edge of the original digital generation.  We were the first kids who grew up with video games and personal computers, the transformative generation that watched records give way to CD’s give way to MP3’s.  And I’m told that means that mine is the last generation whose primary schooling included computers and penmanship.  Permanence is pass√©, proving Douglas Adams’ assertion that human beings are unique in both our ability to learn from our past and our unwillingness to do so.

The handwritten notes I am transcribing into this blog have a greater chance of survival than the post they are becoming.  Not because they are beautiful, but because they are physical, tangible, permanent.

I hold the love letters written between my grandfather and grandmother during his time in the Pacific Theater of World War II.  He wasn't a writer or a poet, he was a dairy farmer.  His words are simple, small and heartfelt.  His penmanship is astonishing.

My grandparents stood in my mind like unassailable giants.  They had survived depressions and wars and come out of it like an indomitable force of nature.  I never fully grasped their humanity until I read the words between a frightened Army sergeant and his bride on the eve of the invasion of the Philippines.  Intellectually, of course, I knew that my grandparents were human beings.  They faced the same doubts and fears (and then some) as I do.  Their world was different and the same.  That soldier felt in 1944 the same deep love for his wife that I do for mine today.

Will my grandchildren get the same effect reading my emails and Facebook statuses and Tweets?  I’d wager that they wouldn’t and that they won’t even get the chance.  But they will know all about my grandpa and grandma if they choose to read them.


Cut & paste with real scissors and real paste.  Write with ink.  Never erase.  The eraser and the delete key are the enemies of history.  Cross things out, draw arrows to show your reader that this should’ve been up there.

Neatness counts in schoolwork and business correspondence.  In life, it’s the messy bits that count.  So scribble thoughts in the margins of books.  Underline things you like, cross out things you don’t.  Doodle in the margins.

Think about your handwriting, but remember that even the messiest scrawl carries greater beauty than even the best font can hope for.

Write in the vernacular.  Use the words you know and say them the way you want to say them.  Do not use the dictionary, do not look up words, banish the thesaurus from your shelf.  Keep your grammar simple.  Talk about the weather and local events.  Print photographs and date them and record who is in them on the back in indelible ink.


Because societies are created by intellectuals, cultures are created by people.  And both are forgotten if the people don’t care enough to record them.


  1. Mutton of the SeaJuly 16, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    Nice post!

    Of course fire, floods, people with an interest in rewriting history, book mites and improbable accidents have all done their part to suck plenty of lives (and documents) into the void of time as well. I'd guess that any given document's chance of surviving more than a hundred years is actually pretty low. But, of course, the chance that your insights will survive is zero if you don't write them down down in the first place.

    I suspect that many people don't write because they believe their thoughts and observations are too mundane to merit a place in history, however temporary. One of the things I like about the more ephemeral media -- like Twitter -- is that they encourage more people to just go for it and write them down anyway.

  2. Yeah, I was poked elsewhere for using Geocities as an example because those sites have been mirrored and cached by the Internet Archive if no one else, just as the Twitter archive is going into LC. But that's not a solution because the mirror sites are as ephemeral as the originals. They run out of money to maintain the sites and they will disappear.

    But you're right, a fraction of what we record for posterity will actually survive. But 100% of what we don't record will certainly be forgotten within a generation.

    I also assert that any format that requires technology to be read and also requires an energy expenditure (electricity) to decipher it from machine code or 'read' it from the solid-state storage media is problematic at best.

    Amusingly, the reports that are giving rise to this national idea of a so-called 'cyberwar' don't really make me all that wary of internet warfare so much as expose just how delicate and slapdash the whole internet really is. In a way, it's astounding it works at all. A cache or mirror of a site is no guarantee of anything really and I have to wonder if - at least in terms of the ephemera upon which a real cultural understanding of any era are based - we haven't put all our eggs in one rickety basket.

    Obviously, I'm not suggesting that we abandon the internet. I'm terribly fond of it, and while I love my funky old typewriter, my stories are typed on a laptop (and backed-up digitally and in hard copy). And almost all the work I do for the school is likewise web-based. I just think that we need to acknowledge how ephemeral electronic documents really are.

    A thousand years from now, whether or not there's something akin to the internet, there WILL be something analogous to the pencil.

  3. Mutton of the SeaJuly 17, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    The question of digital/online preservation of documents becomes more and more interesting on closer examination.

    For instance, I've "lost" the same book twice -- the first time because I'd stored it on a computer that crashed and couldn't be restarted, the second time because I'd stored it on a travel drive that overheated.

    But I was able to recover a much earlier draft both times -- because I'd sent it to my old Yahoo email account that I started over a decade ago! I never would have guessed that, of all the storage systems I've tried, email -- which isn't normally even thought of as a "storage system" at all -- would turn out to be the most reliable. But it has.

    (Yes, I've got a printed copy, too... but it's much harder to edit.)

    I haven't quite accepted the second, crushing data loss. (I was SO close to being finished, and someone MUST have a gadget that can read the stupid drive!) So now the whole project is in limbo.

    Photography presents similar challenges. I was recently chagrined to learn that a digital image is not necessarily a permanent image. In fact, an archivist friend of mine recommends storing anything you really want to save on good old library microfiche -- because it'll last forever, and you'll always be able to figure out a way to read it!

    Still, it's not quite the same with photography... for most of us, there's just no going back to film, which is hardly processed anymore and was shockingly impermanent anyway. We just have to hope that technological advances can keep one jump ahead of data loss, and that so many people have invested so much of their time/creativity/history into sites like Flickr that they won't be allowed to fail.

    (I think the computer knows what we're talking about... I had to retype this whole comment because the whole thing vanished without a trace in mid sentence! Hit "post" before it happens again... :)

  4. Scott, so beautifully written. I understand the sentiments as well as all the deep emotions that lay behind them.
    My step daughter is a mini-me and is currently off at college (at 13) pretending to be a Freshman in college this summer - and attending a college level creative writing course. Yes, I'm jealous.
    I had many of those same words and feelings for her, as I got her her first journal as well.
    Our world is changing fast, and its important that the next generation learn to slow down and remember what's important and leave something behind....
    Loved this post.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).