My latest blog post for Harvard Business Review has provoked a strong reaction to the idea of saying goodbye to the paper notebook. Here’s my own take on the experience of giving up on paper and pen.
Those 25 characters, comprising a tip, a total and a signature, now represent the lion’s share of my handwriting. That’s what I realized during a recent conversation with a colleague, when I asked how he takes notes…meaning, of course, what software program did he use. I didn’t even consider the possibility of his actual answer: a notebook. You know, a lump of paper bound together so that you can scratch at it with a pen. Yuck.
In all honesty, I have never liked holding a pen. What I hated about college exams wasn’t the studying or the race to get out the answers: it was the way my hand ached by the time I got halfway through a test. I tried The Artist’s Way but I loathed the morning pages because unlike a touch typing on a keyboard, pen-and-paper writing can’t keep up with the pace at which ideas actually flow.
As soon as I got a laptop light enough to carry, I braved the glares of my fellow conference-goers so that I could take my notes on my computer, where I could actually read them; my chicken scratch is barely legible, even to me.
Even though I took more and more of my notes on a computer, I still used paper notebooks as my day-to-day repository. After all, who can bother launching Word just to capture a phone number? Or hunting through all those folders of files just to find that brief thought you had during last week’s meeting? For these unavoidable writing situations, I carried a medium-sized, graph-ruled, hard-bound notebook, cycling through a new one every three months. Sometimes I referred back to my meeting notes or latest inspirations, but the notebooks were mostly a garbage can: a place to throw words, information and ideas, knowing that they’d get ground up and lost.
Then came VooDoopad, a one-stop notetaking program, and later, Evernote. When I started using Voodoopad in mid-2005, my notetaking was instantly transformed: instead of opening individual Word documents for each note, I could throw them all in Voodoopad. Better yet, I could actually find them, because unlike my paper notebooks, Voodoopad was both legible and searchable. Then I (regretfully, because I loved Voodoopad and its awesome developer) shifted over to Evernote, which offered features like iPhone syncing — meaning that I could access or add to my notes anytime, anywhere.
My four-notebook-a-year habit became a one-notebook-a-year habit, and my pen and moleskine might languish in my purse for days at a time. Then I’d find myself in a meeting where I couldn’t put a laptop screen between me and my client, and out the moleskine would come (if the notes were important, I’d snap them later on my iPhone and add them to Evernote). Or I’d come up with a blog post idea over dinner — along with a first paragraph I couldn’t bear to type on my iPhone keyboard — and write it down just legibly enough to transcribe into my browser as soon as I got home. Or sometimes I’d simply run out of battery life halfway through a work session, and be forced to switch to paper.
The iPad liberated me from these final use cases for my notebook. There is no meeting where I feel uncomfortable taking notes on my iPad; not only is it small enough to feel unintrusive, but typing on a touchscreen aovid the clackety-clack of a keyboard. I have beautiful Etsy purse that fits my iPad, so if I have an inspiration over dinner, my iPad is always at the ready. And unless I’ve let Little Peanut wear out my iPad watching videogame walkthroughs on YouTube (a not-infrequent problem) it’s usually there to bail me out when my laptop battery dies.
The moleskine I’m using right now — if using is the right term for it — is filled only halfway. The first page of notes are from early 2009, and at the pace I’m going, I’ll be able to use it until about 2014. (A lifespan that puts Apple products to shame: I suspect I’ll go through half a dozen iPhones, four iPads and at least two Macbooks in the same amount of time.)
With my notebook relegated to such occasional use — if memory serves, the last time I needed more than one page of it was during a blackout at the Hollyhock retreat center — it takes some real digging to think of circumstances in which I actually pick up a pen. I no longer bother to carry one, in fact, and it’s only once or twice a month that I find myself wishing I did. I still write on our grocery list (though I’ve been thinking about replacing the pad of paper with a half-dead iPhone that would let us access our list online); I still write the occasional comments on a colleague’s document (though I prefer to load it on my iPad and annotate it there); I still need to fill in my daughter’s reading log for school (though she mostly fills it in herself because she’s still at the stage where writing a few words is a form of learning). Together, these various pen-on-paper scenarios might account for twenty or thirty words’ worth of writing each week.
And that leaves the Visa slips. I use my Visa for almost everything, which amounts to thirty or forty transactions a week: let’s call it 750 characters. I figure that’s twice as much writing as all the other scenarios put together.
Of course, my most recent Visa card has a micro-chip: more and more of the time, I enter a PIN and skip the signature altogether. 750, 650, 550…I feel the written letters slip away. With them goes the memory of my grade 3 teacher, patiently baking my first handwritten story into an “antique” manuscript. I sever the mimetic tie to the eighteen-year-old girl who filled the pages of a journal with her first heartbreak. Out of practice at reading my own scrawl, I can no longer decipher the notebook my husband and I used during our first weekend as lovers — a weekend when I lost my voice and relied entirely on writing.
These are the losses that accumulate through our transition to a new world, a new set of tools, new ways of working and new ways of remembering. At any time I could choose to pick up pen and paper once again, to forego legibility and searchability in favor of the serendipity of what gets recalled and what becomes indecipherable. But I have no romantic fantasies about sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, sipping coffee and writing in longhand; that world is gone, or going, and my paper notebook isn’t going to reveal Paris or the world as they are today.
Instead, I picture myself at that same café, iPad in hand. It’s a lovely spot, charming and a little bit hidden, but I found my way back there because I jotted down the address in Evernote after stumbling onto it last year. Downstairs is the same dark stone room that has served patrons for more than two hundred years; upstairs the stone is interrupted by windows big enough to let in light and wifi. And there I sit, tweeting and blogging and sharing my notes with the world in real-time.