In Praise of Clipboards

This essay was written by Noelle Sterne.

Clipboards? Those remnants of the writer’s Stone Tablet Age? In this explosive Age of  iPads, tablets, laptops, mensa-smart phones, endlessly propagating apps, and GPS trackers that pin down your editor in the Hamptons and remind him to respond to your latest email?

Whatever your writing genre or specialty, you’re probably wired with at least a laptop and daily upgrade cravings. I know, I know—you tell me you can be connected anywhere. In the ATM line, on your iPad you can visit rival banks for their latest lowest check-cashing charges.

With the mall’s free WiFi, in a department store fitting room you can see which coupons match that divine shirt. In the dentist’s waiting room, you can open wide your computer notebook. Sitting under a tree in the park, you can sit cross-legged with your laptop in your lap, saving paper to boot (or reboot).

So, how can a clipboard possibly supplant such tech-orgiastic wonders? Well, my clipboard quietly visits the electronic superstore, while my husband valiantly tries to understand the grade-school electro-wizard’s explanation of the latest generation of gargantuan gigabytes.

The clipboard unpacks quickly on camping trips, while my husband gets his elbows smacked by the pre-programmed, auto-surefire, guaranteed-to-open tent poles. The clipboard rides serenely to the car repair shop, where my husband’s eyes pop at the mechanic’s dazzling estimate-upping electronic diagnostic panel.

Wherever I travel, my clipboard fits easily into a tote, with no need for batteries, memory cards, cables, adapters, chargers, plugs, backup disks, motherboards, kiddy boards, or chairman boards. The clipboard automatically accompanies me to the coffee shop, library, restaurant, and park. It’s with me on the subway, the Sunday drive to relatives’, and the eternal supermarket line.

My clipboard also immunizes me from electronic anxiety disorder (EAD). I harbor no looming fears of crashing hard drives, suffer no spiraling panic at power spikes, dread the contagion of file-chomping viruses, or watch warily for hackers’ rude affronts. My clipboard never displays puzzling sluggishness, sudden dips in energy, or heart-stopping flutters, gasps, buzzes, dings, or crackles.

And the clipboard is instantly available. At the flip of a pen top, it’s booted up and ready to roll. At the electronics maxi-mart, I find a corner by the stockroom and sit on a carton in the corner. My clipboard opens instantly to the next scene in my current short story.

At the campsite, I curl into a canvas chair, a thermos of faux cappuccino propped nearby in the grass. With the clipboard cozily against my knees, I survey the lush forest and settle into the setting of my novel’s next chapter.

Back home after the weekend, I push into the crowded subway for an errand downtown. Squeezed among alien elbows, I press the clipboard against a pole, and before lurching to my stop, manage to scribble out a few almost legible lines for my latest poem.

Granted—handwriting has its drawbacks. It doesn’t store your body of work, rough as it may be, for later major surgery. It doesn’t show off sixty-five alternates for the precise word that maddeningly eludes you. And it doesn’t cut, paste, delete, or redo your revisions with mind-boggling speed.

Nevertheless, I defend the clipboard’s virtues. For one thing, to arrive at the right word isn’t like choosing from a Chinese menu. Often you must stop, probe deep inside, and ask yourself pointed questions (“How would she really feel?”). Only as you quiet down and listen does the right word emerge from your own internal database.

For another, sometimes speed is the last thing you want. You need to sit, stare, ruminate, groan a little, and chew on the pen top. At your computer you can sit and stare, but how can you chew on a keyboard, and who wants to chew on a mouse?

When you use a clipboard, much of the pleasure springs from the sheer physical act of forming the letters. As I write, watching the words become real on paper, the process, like drawing, carries an irreplaceable sensuality.

The pens alone provide no small part of the pleasure. My favorites are felt-tipped, always stashed in my tote in a delicious assortment of colors, like freshly showered fruits at the outdoor market. In comparison, sterile typewriter keys, soundless and fleet as they may be, feel like canned spray cheese to aged Vermont cheddar.

Lest you think I’m the only throwback to the AnteDell-uvian Age, I assure you I’m not alone in my praise of handwriting. Listen to writing guru Natalie Goldberg in her classic Writing Down the Bones (1986, Shambhala):

Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. . . .You are physically engaged with the pen, and your hand, connected to your arm, is pouring out the record of your senses. (pp. 6, 7, 50)

Multi-award-winning mystery writer Phyllis A. Whitney, who published her last book at 93, agrees: “I believe there’s a connection between the brain and the fingers, and there should be as little interference between the two as possible” (“Tools of the Writer’s Trade,” The Writer, August 1992, p. 29).

The poet Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books corroborates: “Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.” (October 12, 2011).

Even science agrees. The London Daily Mail reported on a study with children who learned better with handwriting than computer typing: “Something is apparently lost in the brain process when switching from pen and book to computer screen and keyboard” (January 21, 2011).

This visceral connection is at the core of creativity. When I’ve finally settled down with my clipboard, and the writing flows from heart-mind to arm to pen to page, I sigh with a feeling of greater fullness than kissing an infant or diving into the dripping hot fudge sundae before me.

Despite these paeans, though, I cannot deny the merits of today’s technological marvels. Handwriting addict that I am, I have to admit using the computer for after-first drafts.

Many writers have successfully weathered the fearsome ocean from the safe harbor of pen and paper to the wilds of unknown electronic shores. Both, I’ve found, have their place in our navigation of creativity’s fickle waters. Nevertheless, my devotion to clipboards remains steadfast, and for all the reasons I’ve marshaled above.

Doubtless part of a fast-vanishing breed, I’m still in excellent company. Who else writes or wrote with clipboards, or at least by hand, on stalwart, reliable yellow pads? The distinctive roster sparks confidence. To name only a few, Jackie Collins, Hemingway, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Henry Kissinger, J. K. Rowling, Maya Angelou.

So, if you’re a closet clipboardholic and find yourself gaped at, giggled at, noticeably avoided by other writers, or feeling inexplicably guilty in our post-cursive era, remember that you belong to a proud elite. Ride out the ridicule, stand tall, look ’em in the web cam, and flourish your pen—in praise of clipboards.

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Noelle Sterne is the author of Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams You can also read more about her and her book here.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Abbey Hendrickson

8 Replies to “In Praise of Clipboards”

  1. I’m in total agreement with Noelle. My trusty black clipboard sits inside a zip fastened wallet with handy little pockets. I’ve had this beauty for twenty years and would not be without it. This trusted old friend has received hundreds of thousands of words, and although it may be a little shabby around the edges, I’m sure it has many years of service still left.

  2. As a freelance journalist & book reviewer, I find my favorite place to write, when weather permits, is to sit in a comfortable chair on my porch with a yellow legal pad attached to my clipboard. My very best first drafts and outlines grow spontaneously from this experience! Then it’s to my office and onto the computer to develop the final professional product. I find it to be a healing change in my work schedule that refreshes me to greater productivity when I resume my writing life in the world of computers and social media. My old clipboard is an essential element in that equation.

  3. This post (along with some recent advice) prompted me to write out my entire presentation I’m doing this week. *Then* I will type it. I hope it helps with retention (and jitters!)

  4. Christian, Angie, and Willi–

    Thank you for your concurring thoughts and practices! Clipboarders, unite! Another confession: some of my most creative, prolific writing comes from sitting outside, coffee at my elbow, and writing in pen on half-sheets I cut out, save, and reuse from weekly agendas. Have recorded outlines of short stories, blogs, snips of novels-in-progress, and random insights from these handwritten little beauties.

  5. This is a fun piece. I feel the way you do about clipboards about notebooks and calendars. I love planning things on an actual physical calendar, a friend recently bought me a writer’s diary (which is a calendar) from the women’s lit mag, Myslexia, and I love big pads of drawing and watercolor paper that I can write, and draw on.

  6. Noelle:

    You have an engaging writing style, and a delicious way of incorporating subtle humor into your material in this article.

    I read this article in a public place, and I had to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from bursting into gales of hilarity that would quite possibly have gotten me categorized as ‘losing it.’

    I have at times made my living, or a part of it, as a business, technical and web content writer. I do dabble in fiction, but have no serious credentials in that. With experience I’ve learned to write most nonfiction directly to the computer — but not all types. But with very rare exceptions, I can’t do that with fiction in any way.

    As I said, I am reading and responding to this article in a public place. Along with my three — count ’em — clipboards at least some of which travel with me to the various public computer labs I variously use over the course of a week.

    In addition to the three clipboards I have, so to speak in hand [well, I guess more accurately ‘on hand], with me even as I read the article and responded to it at home I have two [that I remember] with various works in progress or at least lists of things I should be working on.

    For other writers of similar, ahh, penchant, although some models don’t work as well in terms of traveling along, may I suggest those lapdesks you find in catalogs and sometimes in places like brick and mortar bookstores or stationery stores?

    One of my earliest validations as a writer came when a friend gave me one of the cushion-bottomed lap desks. [These are the kind that don’t travel as well.] I have also used the ones that look like a miniature antique writing desk, and the ones that are kind of like a mini-suitcase. [The last are the most portable. They’re fairly small, and have a compartment large enough to throw in a supply of paper, a journal volume or two, and a half dozen or so pens and pencils.]

    This article definitely struck a chord with me. Great piece, Noelle.

    1. Christine—

      What a lovely holiday surprise! I appreciate so much your comments on “In Praise of Clipboards” and especially your ingenious variations on the theme. I too like those lapdesks (Levenger forever!). Your own writing is clear and entertaining, Christine. I laughed in my private place over your public place laughter. If you like, contact me directly through my site (www.trustyourlifenow.com). Glad to continue the conversation.

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