The Magic and Mess of a Blank Page

March 23, 2023

By Reba Campbell

I started the year trying to resume the discipline of keeping a handwritten journal. This process of deliberately writing by hand has reminded me how it so often results in a flow that’s very different from writing using a keyboard.

Research abounds about how hand-writing spurs creativity and encourages memory paths in ways writing using a keyboard doesn’t. A recent Fast Company article references research that says pressing a key doesn’t stimulate brain pathways the same way writing by hand does. “It’s possible that there’s not the same connection to the emotional part of the brain when people type, as opposed to writing in longhand.”

This got me to thinking about a poem I’d written several years ago about writing by hand. Normally I don’t write poetry, but it just kind of flowed out of me though a magical purple during a writing workshop.

On the first day of the workshop, the instructor said we would be writing by hand.

Write with a pen? On paper? Surely, you’re kidding, I thought. I write with a pen only when hard copy editing, jotting off personal thank-you notes or signing an occasional check. I’m the queen of a paperless workspace, the diva of electronic communication.

The instructor offered us the choice of old-style composition books for our writing work. I reached for my laptop saying, “I don’t write by hand.”

“Here we do,” the instructor said.

So in the interest of cooperation, I dutifully selected the notebook with the cover that most appealed to me. I pulled out the only pen I had in my bag – a purple roller ball I used for editing at work. I opened the notebook, skimmed my hand across the first page and gripped my purple pen helplessly. I felt completely blank.

There’s something different about staring down a blank piece of paper versus a blank computer screen. At least the screen has other distractions going on … icons, blinking cursor, color. That blank lined page scared me. That purple pen felt like lead in my hand.

I’ve always liked the simplicity of “cut and paste” on a computer. If I get something wrong, it’s just a matter of highlight and delete. The consistency of font choices is familiar. They are tidy and easy to manage. Things might occasionally get messy with track changes, but I can always hide that. And a computer key never leaks purple ink or leaves a ridge on my finger.

As the weeks went on in my class, however, I got more comfortable with the hand-written exercises. I began to see writing by hand gave me the freedom to mess up, make changes, and play with words in a way that keys and a computer screen don’t allow.

Writing by hand means I can go back to another page and find words I thought I didn’t need. Those words are still sitting right there where I left them, good as new. This is unlike typing on a computer. Once that delete key zaps out a word, a turn of a phrase or a thought, it’s pretty much gone for good.

Hand writing broadens my willingness to slog through the “not right”- scribbling thoughts that may go nowhere at the moment but may prove perfect several pages later – and letting those words survive for a possible other use or a different insight.

The process of writing by hand with that purple pen has led me to a softer acceptance of my daily striving to get it right the first time – whatever “it” is. My default had long been “get it right, and if you don’t, just quickly fix it.”

But now when I open my paper journal (almost) every day, I try not to see just a blank page. I remind myself to see possibilities in the messes of colors and lines and squiggles that often lead me to places I didn’t know I could explore.

Sure, it’s messy. But isn’t that how we get to the good stuff?

The Purple Pen

It felt awkward in my hand
like what I wrote
had to be right the first time.
Doesn’t everything have to be right
the first time?

Scribbling with the pen is messy
I can’t fix what I get wrong
A drop from my tea cup
smears the ink a bit

It’s messy
What if I think of a better way to say it?
I can’t delete it once it’s there
How do I fix it
without being messy?

My head goes
faster than
my hand can write
I can’t
keep up

It’s getting messy

What if I
miss words
or lose them
to another
random thought

It’s messy

Words are now
tumbling too fast
Fingers with
the pen
can’t keep up

It’s messy

My fingers get a little tired
from the pen
There’s a ridge on my finger
It looks messy
from leaking purple ink

Writing becomes
illegible scribble
I’m getting
lost in this stuff
that’s tumbling out

It’s getting really messy

Ink shows thru from the other side of the page
Makes it hard to read
through that mess
This doesn’t happen with keys

It’s just too messy

Mistakes can disappear
with the press of a key
With a pen, they keep haunting, remembering, waiting, reminding
But…what if I need back a thought that fell
victim to the delete key
It’s gone forever

And that would have been really messy


Reba is the president of the Medway Group. She is passionate about travel; writing; learning to play the uke, guitar and keyboard; and staying connected with old friends. She can be reached at [email protected], @rebahcampbell on Instagram and Twitter and through her blog, Random Connect Points (