It’s been a while since I’ve written, which is as much a statement about the turmoil of my inner life as the outer one. This is nothing new, of course. The churn that happens behind the scenes always seems to dwarf what’s on the outside, like some kind of mental iceberg.

Still, writing has always been a place of refuge, as long as I’ve actually done it. The words that course through my head need some sort of outlet, and putting a pen to paper (or fingers to keys) has offered a place to trap them – like an ancient spider in amber – so they can be examined or abandoned in some later age.

Recently I’ve returned my focus to the written page, after over two decades of attention on a glowing screen. I’d forgotten many of the things that made the written word (as opposed to the typed one) so compelling and, to be fair, frustrating. Putting a pen or pencil to paper has a permanence the digital world deeply lacks. Mistakes stay, even when crossed out. Editing means writing something again, differently, elsewhere. Yet on the other hand, the permanence of the page is extremely local, where the impermanence of the screen is now global. My paper mistakes will remain on the page until the page crumbles or burns, but it’s just this page. My deeply mutable mistakes in the digital world can live forever, everywhere – possibly transformed, but not lost or forgotten save in some unforseen digital armageddon.

One nice thing about a notebook is that it only gives back to you the things you put in it. Nothing on the page will change on its own. Nobody else’s thoughts will intrude there without your action. Nothing blinks, flashes, or moves in a desperate plea for your attention. It’s unlikely that your notebook is going to try to sell you something or take away something you value. There are so few places left in this busy world that are truly yours. It’s nice to have a place where you can safely, quietly, enjoy a moment of space and solitude.

I began to rediscover these things when I was deployed a few years ago. Looking for a way to keep track of things when my electronics were left behind, a friend suggested that I look into the Bullet Journal concept. Ryder Carroll’s approach to paper immediately resonated with me, and when my journal has failed over the past few years, it’s because I’ve strayed from his simple, straightforward recommendations. The practice of writing down the essentials, letting compulsive organization go, and getting out of your own way helped me get past a crippling perfectionism that had halted many of my previous attempts at journaling in their tracks.

More importantly, Bullet Journaling showed that there was a way to organize the information around me without a constellation of distracting networked devices constantly clawing for my attention. By showed, I mean reminded of course. I’m old enough to have gone through nearly my entire education without a computer or the internet, and somehow I survived.

What I don’t remember having was a system that made sense of all the paper information around me. I do rememeber Franklin Covey and Filofax, but I don’t remember any methodologies like GTD or Bullet Journaling to help make it all come together in an intelligible way. While it’s probably not as ironic as it seems that it took a digital revolution to best figure out how to organize our paper products, I still find it a bit funny.

Whether in my digital or analog life, there have been a few common threads or maybe common pitfalls on the path. The first is refinement – a desire to have something just a bit nicer than what’s in front of me, and almost certainly a bit nicer than what’s strictly required. The second is complication – a desire to so organize everything that it drowns in a flood of hierarchy.

Windows gave way to Linux and then the Mac. Flip phones gave way to the iPhone and iPad. Pencils and ballpoints gave way to roller-balls, gel pens, fancy imported Japanese gel pens, and now fountain pens. Meade gave way to Moleskine, Leuchtturm1917, Midori, Nanami.

Through each of these changes and upgrades, the core of what I actually did never substantially improved except by time and attention. What I do today on the Mac, iPhone, fountain pen and Tomoe River paper could just as easily be done on a ten-year-old Windows machine, a grocery-store spiral notebook, and a Bic Crystal, probably with a lot less smearing.

What does this say about how I’ve lived my life and engaged with the world around me? Why did it take this long to discover that the only things we really need are right in front of us? That in the long run obsessing about the next greatest anything is the biggest obstacle to personal progress we can find?

To be clear, it’s just as silly to reject the fountain pen in front of you and run out to the store to buy a pack of Bics. Whatever you have right here is good enough, even if it’s a stick and the dirt outside. Make something, write something, do something. Leave the world better, not by buying or consuming, but by making it happen with what’s on hand, even if it’s just your own voice saying hello to a stranger.

It’s taken most of my life to realize that nearly all the obstacles in my way were placed there by myself or with my acquiescence. Most of them were artificial prerequisites that were deeply unnecessary for what really mattered, and offered only a way to avoid the things I was frightened to fail at. Seeing this problem is only the beginning. True growth only starts when we allow ourselves to fail and make ourselves try again, and again, and again.

For now, that will express itself mostly on fancy paper and with a few not-terribly-expensive fountain pens. It will be aided by a phone and computer stripped of many non-essential or distracting applications. Perhaps when boredom strikes, I’ll pull out my long-neglected guitar or go for a walk. Perhaps I’ll sit down and write again, and again, and again. Most likely I’ll continue to make the same mistakes, in one medium or another, again and again, and again. Maybe if I keep doing that enough, there will be some improvement. Maybe making mistakes and trying again is the improvement.

Let’s find out.