An armchair on the beach.
Photo courtesy of Dimitri Svetsikas

A short while ago, I bought one of those all-in-one printer/scanner/fax/copier machines. (An Epson Workforce 3640, to be precise.) I mostly wanted it because it has an ADF (automatic document feeder) that duplexes, meaning that I could quickly scan double-sided documents, which would considerably speed up scanning—no more putting the sheet in the scanner, scanning, flipping it over, scanning it again.

I mention this because Life is Changing Againâ„¢ and while I do my best thinking on paper (I’m writing the first draft of this on paper, for instance), paper is not very portable or efficient to search. So I’m currently in the process of scanning every single piece of paper I have into my computer.

It’s been an enlightening experience, to say the least. It turns out that I have a lot of paper in my house. But if a person’s outer environment (at least to the degree that they have control over it) is any indication of their inner environment, I have a lot of paper in my head, as well.

Some of it is stuff I’ve printed from the internet. Why? Why did I print this?—I ask myself as I go through them. Some of these things seemed so new and fresh to me at one point and now I can do them without even thinking about them. Some of them are things I printed because I wanted to remember but have since forgotten—a monument to the inefficiency of paper as an aid to memory. Some I’ve no idea at all why I printed, but they are there nonetheless. (It goes to the trash, not the scanner, if you are wondering.)

But of a lot of it, the vast majority in fact, is my stuff: rough drafts, revised drafts, to-do lists, lists of books to buy and read, list of books to get from the library and read, lists of articles to write later, lists of tutorials to write later, lists of my lists, (I like lists, apparently), short stories (most incomplete), scraps of code with hand-written notes (surely an odd and oddly non-functional juxtaposition), things I meant to Google later (Alton Brown’s crab boil recipe, for instance), sketches of handouts I meant to write for courses I meant to teach.

It’s been, in some odd way, a bit like peeling away the layers of my mind, as if my mind were some sort of cosmic onion. I found reviews of movies and books I found exciting before but that I’m not that much bothered by now. (So why was I then? What has changed?) I found drafts I’d only imagined writing. I found drafts of things that I thought were two or three pages at best, but that went to over twenty pages. I found others that were the exact opposite: I remember their being a dozen or more pages in length, but two or three pages were the most I could find. I suppose it’s possible that a longer draft still exists somewhere. It is equallly possible that I spent far more time thinking about the topic than writing about it.

What is clear is that I have a lot of first drafts, which rather explodes the idea of writer’s block. Even if I can’t write about something new, I have a pile of first drafts that I can work on and continue to shape and form. And yet that rarely happens.

What strikes me most is the number of drafts that never went past the first. When I was younger, I felt that every draft needed to be polished until it was finished, regardless of how relevant or interesting it was. Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction: everything is worthy of a first draft, and precious little makes it to the second round.

But that’s how it goes, really. Writing a first draft is far different than revising a fifth or sixth draft. (Depending on what I’m writing, I may go through anywhere between three and fifteen drafts. Of course, at some point early on, they go from being drafts to being revisions.)

While tedious, this experience has been valuable. For one, it has confirmed my long-held belief that there is no such things as writer’s block, just like there’s no such thing as bus driver’s block or bricklayer’s block. (While you’re busy being precious, other people are out there getting it done.)

More importantly, it’s taught me that I need to be better organized. I’ve generated a lot of paper over the past few years, and I need to find a better way of handling it. Scanning it all may reduce it to something that fits on a jump drive, but a collection of files named document0001.pdf, document0002.pdf, document0003.pdf, etc., is no more useful than a pile of paper. Once they’re scanned, I need a process for dealing with those files.

I’m sure I can figure it out. It might take a long weekend to sort all these files and come up with a process, but it will be worth it. What I need most is that which I have the least of: time and, especially, energy.

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