Indefinite Ephemera

This week, I received a direct message on Twitter. It’s unusual for me to have one of these, so I wondered what was going on. It turned out to be from someone called Hayley.

Some background here: I’d met her six years ago at a feminist poetry evening in Dundee, and I’d performed a new poem that directly referenced my bisexuality for the first time. She’d enjoyed it and asked for a copy. However, the piece was so new that I had only one handwritten version in my notebook, so I copied out the piece and gave it to her, adding the date and place.

In the message, Hayley told me she had been 19 at the time, and had kept that paper for the last six years, adding that she found it just as validating and comforting at the age of 25.

The poem in question was then included in an anthology by the first publisher I sent it to, but it means more to me that someone has kept it for such a long time, and I hope it continues to bring such validation.

It’s not the first time someone has kept a piece of mine. A few years ago, I owed £1 to my pal Jen Robson, so I placed a coin in an envelope with a silly four-line verse on the front, expecting it to be discarded. To my knowledge, she still has it.

&

In last week’s entry, we looked at handwriting recognition software. If you read the text in the scanned picture, you might have seen I used the ‘&’ symbol instead of ‘and’.

When writing by hand, I do this regularly, barely thinking about it, whereas I would always type out ‘and’ in full. The only time it’s come to my attention is when I’ve been transcribing my notebooks.

Last week, I spotted a video from one of my favourite content producers on YouTube: Tom Scott. He makes short educational films about a range of subjects, from elevators to nuclear waste to computer programming.

This one was about the letters in the English alphabet that have been either merged or separated over the last thousand years. The ‘&’ symbol once came straight after Z in the alphabet, and he explains more below:

Video by Tom Scott about the evolution of the English alphabet.

Oddly enough, I always spell out ‘the’ in full, even although its frequency could justify shortening to ‘th’ or even ‘t’. In 2013, an Australian restaurant owner tried to invent a new symbol for ‘the’, but eight years on, it’s safe to say it hasn’t caught on.

Yes We Scan

On this blog a couple of weeks ago, I talked about starting my yearly Fun a Day project. I’m drawing pictures inspired by the years around the Millennium, then publishing each day’s output on my old blog.

However, my that’s only one part of the story. My main activities can be roughly equally divided into:

  • Producing the drawings
  • Writing in my logbook by hand
  • Scanning the above documents to publish them online.

In previous years, the logbook would be displayed on a table at the exhibition, so there was no need to transcribe it. This time, it’s looking likely that we’ll need to exhibit online again, so I’ve been typing up my words in plain text to make them readable to others.

I soon found it was time-consuming to type up each day’s entry, so I wondered whether there might be a way to use automatic handwriting recognition. There is, and I already had the means of doing it.

Google Drive has a function that turns your phone camera into a scanner. The resulting PDF file can then be opened by Google Docs as text.

Logbook entry dated 12 Jan 2021 being scanned by Google Drive.

Some correction is always necessary, to a greater or a lesser extent, but most errors can be cleared up by using a spell-checker. Even a bad scan is marginally quicker to fix than typing the whole entry from scratch.

I don’t think I’m going to use this technology day-to-day, though. When I write by hand, I normally copy it into the computer by hand so I can make revisions on the fly. For a job that needs to be done quickly, however, it’s a great solution.

Repetitive Strain Recovery

It was around the time of the 2014 Commonwealth Games when I really started notice the strain in my fingers. It had started off weeks before as a pain in the middle finger of the hand I used to click a computer mouse, but as I was writing humorous commentary about the opening ceremony to online friends, it was difficult to keep going.

The cause was obvious. I had a job where I was typing for most of the day, and I was using a computer outside of working hours. As such, something had to change before my fingers dropped off and I couldn’t write any stories or poems.

One practical adjustment I could make at work was to apply for a roller mouse. The roller is in a fixed place, and it can be controlled with different parts of your hand to avoid straining one place. I’d already been using AutoCorrect to save keystrokes when entering common phrases and jargon.

Outside of work, however, there was more freedom. I started to write my first drafts by hand, making use of the lined pages in my diary. To type up the second draft, I learnt how to use voice recognition. Used properly, speech-to-text software has a good level of accuracy even out of the box, but it’s important to exercise patience while it learns the way you speak.

Furthermore, I found that lifting free weights at the gym relieved the pain in my fingers temporarily. As I usually go at lunchtime, this helped me out in the afternoons.

This year, I’ve realised that by making these changes, I can now type for much longer without my hands hurting. However, I still keep my other measures in place as I don’t want another five or six years of beating RSI again.

Writing to My Influences: Six Months On

Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. It was necessary to use pen and paper because his publisher didn’t provide an e-mail address. I enjoyed the process so much that it sparked off a project to write to 10 other people who have influenced me.

Six months have now passed since that project. I haven’t received a response from any of them, but I didn’t ask for one; I merely wanted to express my thoughts on their work. At least I can be reasonably certain the letters did reach their respective destinations as none have been returned to sender.

English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called ...
English: The first U.S. aerogram, then called a air letter, the modern transformation of the letter sheet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have no plans to repeat this project, but if I did, I’m uncertain whether I would do anything differently.

The most difficult letters were to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel because they were childhood influences rather than current ones. Yet I’m glad I did because, as 2016 has shown, nobody will be around forever. Conversely, I fear I might have scared off Andrea Gibson as that ran to four handwritten A5 pages. Given another chance, I might have boiled it down to its essentials, and I acknowledged this point within the letter itself.

There is one side benefit. To carry out the project, I needed suitable writing paper so I bought a notepad with tear-out pages. On the odd occasion when I’ve needed to write other letters and notes over the last six months, it’s been ideal.

I do quite often write on paper even if I’m not composing a letter. This entry, for instance, began life as handwriting in a notebook; I wasn’t in a hurry and it’s more portable than a laptop, plus it slows down your thoughts to the speed of the pencil. When it’s finally put on computer, it undergoes its first edit. If you’re accustomed to using a computer, I recommend the method.

The Paper Trilogy.

I intended to make only one entry on the theme of paper, which turned into a second post. This entry will be a short third and final update on this topic, as I just keep finding more material.

I’ve discovered more notebooks, including some early drafts from my second novel, and a review of Tron: Legacy for my old LiveJournal blog. Once again, I’ve never reached the last pages of these pads. I find this rather strange, as I’m not the sort of person to leave a job half-finished. Once, I would have preserved them as they were, but I’ll use the other pages in the future if I need to.

My pencils are a different story. I have dozens of them around the house, and I don’t like to waste them. In fact, here are my two smallest ones joined by a rubber grip. I’ll use them until I physically can’t hold them any more:

The world's smallest pencil

I’ve also discovered from Mental Floss that every new prime minister leaves a handwritten letter about what to do in the event of a nuclear conflict if both he and his assigned second-in-command are dead. It seems a little strange that such a format is still used. If I was PM, I’d make sure I spelled it out in 16-point Helvetica so the commanders aren’t standing around asking, “Does that say, ‘load weapons,’ or, ‘lower weapons?'”

More poignantly, ListVerse posted a collection of last words written by people facing certain death. Not all of them had the luxury of pen and paper, including the prisoner of war who scratched out a memorial on a rock, and a diver who wrote his on a slate.

Lastly, I’d like to show you the paper books I plan to read throughout the rest of the year, including modern writers such as John Twelve Hawks and Richard Dawkins, a selection of Penguin Classics, and a number of local anthologies:

Paper books to read this yearIf you want more information on any of these, let me know.

Some Salvaged Scribbles.

A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.

I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.

Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.

My filing system
My filing system

Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.

But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.

I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?