Birthday Letters

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

The day I turned 20, on a whim, I wrote an email to myself one year in the future. I bemoaned present-day politics, laid out a sketchy set of hopes for my year to come, and scheduled the email for delivery, beginning a tradition I still keep today.

I went analog after the first one, but the idea is otherwise unchanged: each year on my birthday, I read past years’ letters to my future selves, then write one for the year to come, inevitably cracking at least one joke in the process about the grammatical difficulties of writing to oneself in the future. Then I seal it up and stow it away for another 365 days (give or take).

Although I record big events and milestones in my personal journal, these annual letters have grown to serve an important role for me. Each year, I get to reflect not only on the past year, but the years before it as well, and see how I’ve grown. At the same time, I record a snapshot of the present and consider my future. It’s a tradition of mindfulness that I deeply treasure.

Writing to myself has also helped me remember to treat myself with love, and it does so precisely because of the form of the letter. In my journal entries, I am telling stories or expressing myself for an empty audience—I’m not talking to anyone, not even myself. But letters are, by their very nature, social. When I write a letter to myself, I have to think of myself as I would any other person—I use the pronoun “you”, for instance. This structure curbs any impulse I might have to be excessively self-critical or mean, because I would never write such things in a friendly letter to another person.

I have to treat my (future) self with the dignity and respect I’d show any other friend I wrote to, and over five years, that has helped me immensely to build a loving relationship with myself.

Birthday Letters - Top View

School Notebooks

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

I tried taking class notes digitally when I got my first laptop in high school. It seemed like the obvious solution; after all, I type much faster than I write by hand. Not only would my computer allow me to capture more information in a class, it would also make it easier to search through the notes I’d taken.

It was nowhere near the success I’d hoped. Being able to capture anything led me to try to capture everything without ever parsing its importance. What I was doing wasn’t notetaking, it was recording. Furthermore, the rigidity of the digital page was another hurdle; in my word processor, I couldn’t easily draw arrows or include quick figures like I would on paper. And, of course, typing did not engage my brain nearly in the same way as writing by hand. All of this combined meant that the information slipped from my brain like water off a duck’s back. Continue reading

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

Digital tools strive for a frictionless ideal. Armed with modern technology’s hypermobility, connectivity, and sheer capability, we’re constantly designing and using tools that reduce the friction of our mental lives. When a thought crosses my mind at work, I can pick up my phone and speak to it, telling it to remind me when I’m home to pay my credit card bill, and when it detects that I’ve returned to my home address, it will deliver my note-to-self with a gentle buzz. By making “smart” devices, we reduce our own cognitive burden.

Taking A.P. Physics tests in high school, I longed for the simplicity of a frictionless world, but in the way one longs for magic powers, with the recognition that my wild fantasies would never be anything but fantasies. Friction may be frustrating when it adds three steps to your calculations, but it also serves a purpose; friction keeps our cars on the roads, our glasses perched on our noses. As Doug Lane indicates in a recent blog post, whether we’re talking about the physical world or the psychic one, a certain amount of friction is necessary to keep the system functioning. The trick is managing it. Continue reading

Stories

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

When I started Volume 3 of my personal journal, Stories, I was a high school senior mere weeks away from graduation. By the time I was finished, I’d lived in Japan for a year, ended the longest romantic relationship in my life to date (and started a new one), and done some serious soul-searching to determine who I was, what I wanted, and how to be better than the dick I’d been in high school. Volume 2, Change, represents a low point in my life, but I’m proud of Stories. Stories was me growing up.

The book itself was a present from my then-girlfriend. It’s covered in beautiful decoupage (her work), including pages from the Oresteia, lyrics to “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, and a snapshot of the iconic “Made in Oregon” sign in downtown Portland. All of my journals have reflected some aspect of my self in their appearance, but I don’t think any speaks more about who I am than Stories. It’s just me.

Made in Oregon
What a thoughtful touch.

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What's Your Story?

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

Around the end of high school, I discovered the philosophy of humanism, and man, did I love it. Carpe diem! Be ashes, not dust! We’re all the heroes of our own stories! If there had been such a thing as a humanism fan club, I would have been its president and head cheerleader.

What’s Your Story? was a project from those days of hyper-enthusiastic humanism. The idea was to make a traveling journal that contained strangers’ stories—whatever people wanted to share. I’d write my own, then set the journal free in a coffee shop, casting it off into the wilds without any expectation of seeing it again.

I still like the idea, but as you can see, in six years, I still haven’t let it loose.

NOTES [on/from/about] LIFE

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

Near the end of Change’s run, my girlfriend asked to read its contents.

I should have recognized that as a sign that her trust in our relationship was faltering, gently declined the request, and worked together with her to find a way to rebuild her trust. That would have been the emotionally intelligent, mature way to handle that while also maintaining my personal boundaries. But, as established before, high school me had the emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills of a misanthropic sea cucumber, so instead of doing any of that, I hemmed and hawed for weeks before finally caving and, profoundly uncomfortable, thrusting my journal at her and wincing.[ref]Seriously—I handed it over and then sat there with my eyes closed, waiting for the bombshell to drop.[/ref]

She read a little bit before she found one of my more grossly objectifying entries. It had been written at a time when we hadn’t been dating and I had a thing with someone else, so I assumed she was aghast to learn I’d been with other people. In hindsight, she was almost certainly more aghast (and rightfully so) at the sexist, objectifying way I wrote about those experiences, and the mindset it revealed. Our relationship was smoldering with the fallout for months after. Continue reading

Change

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

Oh, this journal.

Given to me as a gift by a close friend, it became Volume 2 for my reflections after I filled Exponents up, and lasted from my sophomore year of high school until a few months before high school graduation.

A Journal Named Exponents was a training ground for me. I had never kept a personal journal before, so I spent most of its pages determining what putting myself to paper looked like. At first, this meant meticulously recording the minutia of dates and hangouts–in at least two separate entries, I recorded not only what I ordered for dinner, but what all my companions did as well. By the end of Exponents and the beginning of Change, however, I’d curbed that tendency, and had a solid idea of what a personal journal was for me: a safe place where I could record my innermost thoughts without fear of judgment. As such, from cover to cover, the pages of Change carry the distilled essence of high school me.

It’s difficult to read.

Rage in the pages of Change
This is hardly the only–or most extreme–example.

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Sketchbook

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

At some point in my childhood—perhaps when they got tired of my closet overflowing with drawings on printer paper—my parents bought me a wire-bound sketchbook. From then until well into college, when I finally transitioned to drawing primarily digitally, the only drawings I made that weren’t in a sketchbook were my notebook-paper school doodles.

By my reckoning, I’ve filled two full-sized sketchbooks completely, and am on my third. When I first traveled to Japan in high school, I brought a half-size book and put illustrations in the first 20 or so pages; when I returned in college and realized I’d neglected to pack a sketchpad, I bought a thin Japanese notebook to tide me over.

My drawing has never been the same type of outlet to me that my writing is, but those pages still contain important parts of my self.

A Journal Named Exponents

This post is part of a series on the various ways I've used pen and paper in my life. To learn more about it, check out the introduction, or view the "ink and paper brain" category for other posts.

When I turned 14, my Grandma S., a loving, whip-smart woman whose career—librarian—and personal passion—writing poetry—make me strongly suspect that having an inky brain is hereditary, gave me a journal. It was wrapped in toasty brown suede enlivened by a jaunty path of rainbow stitching. A thin leather lace wrapped around an ornate silver button and tied it shut. It was the nicest journal I’d ever owned, and the moment I saw it, it became part of my self. And since, at 14, I labored under the delusion that the fastest route to humor was nonsense, I named it “A Journal Named Exponents”.

Exponents - Title - 02 - Web size
“Because it’s a cool word,” the parenthetical reads. I don’t know who I thought I was fooling.

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