I ran out of creative titles this week. My brain hurts from too much school work, so this is going to be short, sweet, to the point.
As I sorted through the piles of books I checked out of the library for research for my Henry James class, I came across a piece of paper shoved into the back page of one of the monotonous titles. It was tucked rather unceremoniously into the crease of Henry James Against the Aesthetic Movement, slightly wrinkled. “Brittany” was printed in big, bubbly handwriting across the sheet of folded loose leaf.
I was about to throw it away—obviously it was just someone’s name tag set up for class so the seminar leader could see—when I saw scrawled on the other side of the highlighter writing a tiny list of names. There were maybe ten. On a different fold of the paper the same names were repeated.
There didn’t seem to be anything particularly remarkable about the names. They were common, short, written in a smaller version of the bubbly handwriting. I did throw the paper away eventually, but I held it for a moment. I wanted to know why Brittany was writing down names for no reason. Well, I didn’t know if it was for no reason—I really, really wanted to know the reason. Was it just the people in her class? She might be trying to remember their names. Was she coming up with baby names for a friend? A sibling? For her own future child?
If it had been my paper, they would have been character names. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve doodled plot ideas, character sketches, and brief phrases I thought sounded like a good first sentence into the margins of my notebooks, onto the discarded name plate I had for class, on the back of my hand. It was always rather incredible to me how people left things in books. My scribbles were so important to me, so significant in fact that I always folded up the paper quickly and stuffed it in the darkest, safest region of my backpack before I left the class. Never would I have been so careless as to forget something like that in a book or on a desk.
Writers—or this writer at least—are nosy. When you can’t find enough facts to satisfy your curiosity, you make them up. This particular paper in that book with names penned by a bright, presumably cheerful (judging by her handwriting) Brittany probably was not as profound as I felt in that moment before I tossed it in the trash. It was probably just a piece of paper with some words on it. In my experience, the job of the writer is to assign significance to things that other people don’t think deserve significance. We are the valuators of the good, the beautiful, the aesthetic if you want to go that far. We decide what we think is special or relevant. It could be something the rest of the world thinks is deserving of attention, or it could be a bit of paper, or thread, or the way a cloud passes over the sun, or the expression on someone’s face when they drop a pen.
It’s a big responsibility. But someone has to do it.
Because if nothing is really, truly significant, what is your writing but a piece of paper with some words on it?