I Don’t See the World Unless I See It in Ink.*

May 9, 2010

Words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
• Lord Byron**

Although I often wonder where ideas go as they flit through my head and disappear, I think daily about where they come from and how pursuing their shiny snailtrails can lead to something more. Every day these glistening paths lead me to the unexpected. I awaken not knowing what I will say or where I will go. I search the files I keep next to the bed. I look through 3×5 cards filled with quotations. I find something and I begin, but I still do not know where I am going. I have a trail, but I do not know where it leads.

This is how it worked today.

I am working on syllabi for two courses I teach every three years, one on classroom creativity and one on writing. I have crates full of hanging files filled with teaching possibilities: articles, quotations, notes, oddservations. I have tubs filled with materials. I’ve been going through them and I found this note to myself:

March 25, 2009.
We pass a tanker truck full of ink and I think this is odd. I’m not young, I’ve been on many, many miles of roads, and I’ve never seen a truck full of ink before. I wonder how many words could be written with this much ink and what it would be like if words, like miles, were purchased by the tankful or penful. What if our words were limited by the number we could afford to drive across the page. What would I say with a gallon of words?

Today I make notes on the page. This could be an activity, perhaps for creativity or perhaps for the writing class. What if people could only write their way into the world? At birth, each child is given pen and ink and learns to write. S/he can scribble endlessly, learning rules and reason until adolescence when, in an inking rite of passage, s/he is given a lifetime’s ink, the same amount for every person. From that moment on, words must be measured out, chosen carefully. Every word counts against the whole of life. Too many and the voice is silenced; too few and the person’s mark is never fully made. No communication happens unless driven by the pen.

I wonder what I would say. Would truth matter more in such a world or would the limiting simply make the charlatan’s words seem weighty? And I think that perhaps this is the assignment: “A Gallon of Words.” If you had a gallon of ink to last the rest of your life, what would you say? I love you? I care? I’m sorry? Please and thank you? Would you spread hope and kindness? Would you pontificate? Prevaricate? I begin a list:

A cup for griping.
There’s plenty that ticks me off. And I’ll
reserve at least another cup
for writing comments on the papers
sitting patiently awaiting my review.
But wait, shouldn’t these words come from
students’ ink reserves?
No fair to have to use my own.
I won’t need much for grocery lists
perhaps a tablespoon will do since
I’ll improve my memory to save a drop or two.
Letters to my mother, another cup, at least.
And poetry requires I hoard a quart for unexpected
rhymes and fleeting thoughts.
I’ll want a pint for encouragement and even more for
saying all the things that people need to hear,
but mostly I’ll think less of what I want to say
and more of what I don’t.
No unkind words. No harshly critical or
mean remarks. No thoughtless papertalk.

I would not want to live in such a world of limitations and my thoughts take me into the explosion of words that is the internet, virtual ink written across millions of miles, something I sometimes bemoan since so many of them are not worth the ink they’d be printed with. This is another topic and I make a note to revisit it.

I remember something I read about Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough, who didn’t dot her i’s in order to save ink. She died in 1744, when ink was likely a luxury. As for me, I don’t have time to dot my i’s and I think of all the time I’ve saved not going back to do so. I-dotting distracts me and slows down my writing process. I move on from this inkish digression and hunt through 3x5s, looking for ink-related quotations. I find several that inspire further blogs and I put them away in a rubber-banded stack with other savings. I find these too:

I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks.
• Janet Flanner

I think about how this quotation could be used to inspire artmaking. I imagine bringing sponges to class and creating art around them. I’ll think more about this one, but I’ll check the dollar store to see just how much this would cost. If it would be financially feasible, this may become an assignment. I will give each person a sponge and ask them to collect their thoughts in it for a week and squeeze them out. How they do so will be up to them.

Animals outline their territories with their excretions; humans outline their territories by ink excretions on paper.
• Robert Anton Wilson

I do many versions of lifemapping with Collectory projects. I’m saving this quotation to use with them and I’m putting it with my Yuckology materials as well since it is a bit gross, isn’t it?

Some quotations I save simply because I love them, because they capture someone’s passion for life:

If I lose the light of the sun, I will write by candlelight, moonlight, no light. If I lose paper and ink, I will write in blood on forgotten walls. I will write always. I will capture nights all over the world and bring them to you.
• Henry Rollins

And some I know by heart because I’ve used them for years, like this Chinese proverb: The palest ink is better than the sharpest memory. Without my inky notes, there’d be no trails to follow.

What would you say if your inking were limited?

I’ve got a vendetta to destroy the Net, to make everyone go to the library. I love the organic thing of pen and paper, ink on canvas. I love going down to the library, the feel and smell of books.
• Joseph Fiennes

* Thanks to Jewel Kilcher (professionally known as Jewel, poet, singer, actress, and more) for the title quotation.

** Oh, Byron, Byron, Byron. Since you were saying this while you were alive, I can only hope that you weren’t saying it about yourself since I certainly don’t imagine that my words here will make even ten people think, much less a thousand, and never mind millions. And I know you were a popular guy, but still, a bit of humility is always attractive in a man. Thus I would want any reader to know that you–and definitely I–mean that words matter, right?


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