The Writing Life: the unruled page by mensah demary

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open moleskine with blank unlined pages

...somewhere in my reptile brain, a $17 journal makes me more of a writer than, say, a $0.99 notebook from Walgreens.

i allow myself many vices: cigarettes, more cigarettes, various Apple products [my apartment is wired to Apple’s hive mind], and Moleskine journals. while i don’t believe in the so-called “writing life,” there is value in journaling one’s thoughts. i guess. i’m parroting the advice of fellow writers who swear by the act. still, i buy Moleskines because somewhere in my reptile brain, a $17 journal makes me more of a writer than, say, a $0.99 notebook from Walgreens. i allow myself to buy into this lie, this justification; like cigarettes, i say to myself, “Well–there’s only one life to live.”

a month ago, i bought a new Moleskine. my previous one still had available pages but, sometimes, i need the sight of a new, fresh journal, even if–on the outside–the new looks identical to the old. i can’t remember why, but i decided to skip my usual purchase–the soft cover journal with ruled pages–for a plain Moleskine: same size, same soft, black cover, but with blank pages. i hadn’t used a journal sans lines since my early 20s when i considered myself a poet [“the dark ages,” i refer to those years].


i discovered an incongruence between my notebook and the tech tools i utilize to write [iMac, iPad, iPhone, all hail the ghost of Steve Jobs]: the journal had ruled pages while, between my various iGadgets, i always typed into a blank document. in grade school, i used those three-subject notebooks with the metal spiral binding–those clunky, colossal notebooks in which i doodled or wrote love letters instead of lecture notes–but, by the time i entered what some would call my “writing life,” around the age of seventeen, i wrote my stories and poems on the computer. i left behind the ruled page and opted for the tabula rasa of a word processing document, blank and, i suppose, ominous.

i used to be scared of the blank page. it seemed so–blank. it begged for my thoughts, my imagination expressed with the written word, but i froze up at times. maybe it was writer’s block, but i don’t believe in writer’s block, so i consider it fear. or anxiety. over-thinking the task at hand rather than letting my fingers dance upon the keyboard without a worry or thought, at least until i hit the period button–full stop–to ponder my next move. no, i saw the white page, unruled, and remained still, so to speak.

but of course, i overcame this fear with my primary mantra: just write. there is no writing life–there is only one task: just write.

just write.

“just writing” in my Moleskine became a chore. i couldn’t understand why i had so much anxiety over the simplest of writing tasks: to jot down my innermost thoughts into a notebook that i guarded–guard–with my life, lest be dressed down by the reader, a family member or lover, who might breach my privacy and discover my pitiful secrets. in other words, my journal–and the act of journaling–is not the space for high creative writing. it’s all narrative. my narrative. boring and mundane and somehow important to me.

[someday, i’ll follow Didion’s advice regarding the keeping of a notebook. but i’m not there yet. not yet. still stuck in my solipsistic ways. forgive me, Ms. Didion, for i know not what i do.]

anyway, i hated to write in my journal. and when i bought my new–and current–Moleksine, i guess i subconsciously knew i needed a change.

the unruled page unified my digital and analog “writing lives.” i flip the journal like an iPad–portrait to landscape and back–and i write my thoughts and i write marginalia for my thoughts and little notes concerning something i need to remember. i make a mess of my unruled pages. in this way, my digital and analog “writing lives” fragment once again, albeit slightly and, for now, not to my detriment. right now, i’m typing in Pages. the document is, or was, blank but the cursor follows an invisible and seemingly infinite series of lines–the blank word document is ruled–but i’m not bothered by this fact. it’s a matter of what my eyes see–or don’t–and it helps me, for one reason or another, to have done away with lines. they were a distraction, i suppose, and journaling seems easier now. or maybe more natural. or less of a chore.

naturally, in my quest to debunk the notion of “the writing life,” my closing remark is this: just write the damn sentence, regardless of ruled or unruled pages, pens or keyboards, overpriced journals or dime store notebooks.

just write.

Thomas DeMarymensah demary, whose prose has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, is co-founder & editor-in-chief of Specter Literary Magazine. A regular contributor for PANK Magazine’s blog, Art Faccia, and Peripheral Surveys, mensah currently writes in Camden, New Jersey with his wife & writing partner, Athena. For more information, visit or on Twitter @mensahdemary.

  4 comments for “The Writing Life: the unruled page by mensah demary

  1. I like your comments and observations, Mensah. But, I have to ask a question…

    Why are words which are typically capitalized (the title, I, your name) NOT so in your article? Was this purposeful or part of a submission snafu with Hippo? I know I’m showing my age here, but I find it distracting from the good things you have to say.

    Just wondering….

  2. Thanks, your story is very recognizable. I started my first attempt at writing long hand three years ago but found it too cumbersome and resorted to the computer after rewrites took too much time. The process of writing long hand was somehow different and released my creative side, as the computer signified business and work. Now the two have blended for me.

  3. I too have known this fear of the page and the need to shift from one method of writing to another. This is a compelling piece.

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