I grew up in a safe environment I’ve come to know as Pencil Town. Here, I was constantly surrounded by wooden, mechanical, and even those push point pencils that were so popular in elementary school. To complete the set, I always had an eraser on hand, whether it was one of those gray Magic Rub ones, or one of those retractable contraptions with neon colored tubes and flaccid eraser sticks that we used to pretend were floppy wieners.
Sometimes we even got creative and combined the two by pushing a piece of spare lead into an eraser and pretending it was a pencil. These two school time essentials worked hand in hand. The pencil would let me scribble away without fear of making mistakes, while the eraser served as a security blanket to let me know that if I wrote “a” instead of “the,” she’d be there to make it all better and no one would even know, unless they looked hard enough or if the eraser was shitty. It was a comforting time, but it was also one during which I developed a fear: writing in pen.
In middle school, small steps were taken to wean us off of pencil dependency. Teachers required projects to be submitted in ink, so it was common practice to write out everything in pencil, and then trace it in the forbidden, permanent substance. Even though the training wheels were still on, it was still a scary thing to hold a writing tool so uninviting in hand. One nudge of your seat partner’s elbow or twitch of the wrist could send the line of ink flying to an unwanted place on the page, and you’d be forced to use white out to cover it up. Then everyone would know you were that kid that fucked up big time.
It was in high school where pencils were eliminated and my fear hit an all-time high as we moved from Pencil Town to The Real World: Graphite is for Babies. Dreaded short answer quizzes were now to be taken in ink, as I can imagine AP teachers were done with trying to read smudged, non-number-two pencil bullshit. I suppose this was to help prepare us for real life, in which no self-respecting adult would take out one of those shaker pencils, spare led, an eraser, and spare pencils at the grocery store to write a personal check, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Suddenly, everything I wrote was so bold and clear and susceptible to mistakes for all to witness.
Perhaps it was the exposure therapy or just a preference for not having to open up and inspect mechanical pencils every time they did that thing where the lead keeps going back into the tip, but I eventually started to become more comfortable using pen. I liked being able to see how I struck through three words before finding the right one, or how I turned an accidental squiggle into a drawing in a journal entry. I loved all signs of the messy, beautiful process of self-expression.
As I progressed through school and life, typing became the thing to do. Discovering this Computer Canyon allowed me to get out my thoughts quicker to meet a deadline, all while avoiding inevitable hand cramps, but there was also something missing. With computers, you only get the final product, albeit laden with spelling errors that technically aren’t wrong because “well” is still a word, even though you meant to type out “whimsically.” There are no signs of the thought process that I adore so; no room for the doodles that happened when I was supposed to be writing dialogue or crafting an argument about why the series finale of “Lost” was perfect enough to move me to tears.
Making mistakes is a very human thing to do, and with a pen I could try to cover up the fact that I spelled “separate” with three E’s instead of two, but there are still going to be obvious clues that a blunder occurred, and I liked that. Computer Canyon was not like this. It was a place where mistakes could be permanently deleted with a few clicks on a keyboard, with no traces of former life left behind. This was not somewhere I wanted to be for long periods of time. It was cold and dark and filled with obstacles like “Googling your boyfriend’s ex ten different ways” and “amateur porn,” obviously put in the way to distract me from working.
Now that I’ve escaped, I make my own rules about where I dwell, and I’ve chosen to settle down in Pen Island. It is here where I am surrounded by scraps of paper, half-filled journals, and one-sentence ideas that went nowhere, but might be something one day. I leave occasionally to submit articles and update my blog and “accidentally” get distracted by reading conservative comments on NPR articles for entertainment, but for the most part, this is my home.
I’ve grown to love the once-frightening process of putting myself at risk of making mistakes that can’t be undone by an eraser phallus and have learned that pens are not death traps designed to make me fail miserably. Hiding my errors isn’t going to make them disappear, but leaving them out in the open helps me see that everything is a learning process, and that with enough scribbles and strikethroughs, something kind of cool can be created. Plus, if I chose to erase every dumb or embarrassing idea I’ve had over the years, I probably wouldn’t have anything left to write about.
**I was just informed that “Pen Island” is a thing that boys liked to write out in middle school because when the spacing is rearranged, it spells “Penis Land.” When I saw the words, I merely thought, “what a fun place to be!” Thus, I am keeping the name as it is.