I wonder if my hatred of paper is just another form of mourning.
There’s a name for how I feel about paper: “Papyro” from papyrus, the scroll-making material of the ancients, combined with “phobia,” meaning aversion or fear. Papyrophobia is a real, though rare, condition, according to the Encyclopedia of Phobias, Fears, and Anxieties . People who skew to the fear side of papyrophobia may particularly dread blank paper, or torn bits, like the woman who says she has to leave the table if there’s a straw wrapper on it. Their agonized stories all begin, “I thought I was the only one . . . ” I feel a little pervy lurking on their message boards.
I hate paper.
Try to pass me a printout and I will put up my hands and back away. Give me a piece of mail and I will shred it. My favorite night is Thursday because that’s when we bag up all the paper and put it out for recycling. If a piece of paper lingers where I can see it, I get angry. Ban it or burn it, just get it away from me.
I hate paper.
I hate paper almost as much as I used to love it. I was a connoisseur who could tell twenty-four-pound recycled parchment from twenty-eight-pound white wove at twenty paces. I specialized in composing love letters on the back of diner placemats and airplane ticket stubs, and carried around envelopes and stamps to mail them on the spot.
My favorite for creative writing was graph paper, eight squares to the inch, which I bought in loose leaf and notebook form whenever I ran across it, along with dozens of extra-fine razor point pens. I came to believe I could not write a word without my chosen paper and pen, and before long I couldn’t write with them either.
Nearly a decade after my father died, his last wife decided it was time to deal with his papers. They’d met at a logger’s tavern around 1977 in the little gray town of Raymond on the Washington coast. My dad, formerly of the San Francisco Examiner, was living in a shack behind the bar, plucking ferns in the new-growth woods for beer money. Winnefred was a minor pillar of the community with a house on a rise at the edge of town. You could see the shell-littered oyster flats out her front window and the clear-cuts up the hillsides out the back. Winnefred had had a stroke not long before she and my dad met, so soon he became her lover and live-in caretaker. He guided her walker around the Safeway while they stocked up on twenty-four–packs of Olympia and cartons of cigarettes—Marlboros for him, Virginia Slims for her. In return, he got a place to set up his desk: an old door balanced on two-drawer metal file cabinets in the finished attic, paneled in cedar, by a row of windows looking out over pine tops.
As far back as I can remember, through the many houses he and my mom shared and the many more he passed through after they split, my dad had a door-desk set up just like this: typewriter in the middle, ashtray on the right, and ream box of paper on the left, with its lid just above for collecting pages as he wrote. He was pragmatic when it came to paper, partial to onionskin but open to copy paper or cheap newsprint, whatever was at hand. One whole novel was typed on the recycled flip-side of copies of a newsletter he’d published for an issue or two: Rogues , for footloose men with literary aspirations like himself. Hundreds of undelivered Rogues went back into the writing mill.
During his good years in Winnefred’s attic, before his brain and body gave way to the slurry of a half-century of drinking, my dad wrote another three novels to add to the dozen he’d completed since the mid-1960s. One a year, all autobiographical, all featuring some thinly disguised version of himself and my mom and us kids and the latest love in his life. Each at least a ream, often with a carbon copy, not a single one published: more than ten thousand sheets of paper.
By the time he died in 1985, my father’s memory was in tatters and his legs were so swollen he could no longer climb the steep narrow stairs to the attic. Winnefred had transformed from querulous invalid to munificent caregiver; she guided his halting steps around the Safeway now. His writing consisted of questions to himself scrawled in a notebook he kept by his side all day, perched on a leatherette easy chair in Winnefred’s dark living room, sipping tea spiked with vodka while the Weather Channel played silently on the console TV. “Son Mark. W says he died. What year?” “Nominated for Pulitzer on San Francisco paper. True?” “Small dog here again today. Ours?”
For a few years after he died, Winnefred would send us chatty letters typed on floral stationery, and I recognized my dad’s typewriter in the shading of the e’s and s’s. Eventually we dwindled down to Christmas cards back and forth, hers with typed envelopes and shaky signature. Then, in 1994, Winnefred called and said she was “spring cleaning” and needed help dealing with the metric ton of paper my father had left behind. I collected my mother and brother (age thirty now, still a teen the last time he’d been to Raymond) for the flight to Seattle and the drive down the foggy forest roads of the Olympic Peninsula to my father’s attic office.
Though his life favored chaos, my dad had a system for his paper: manila folders labeled with plastic tabs and a carefully numbered set for each novel in progress. His last one, Serenity , occupied seven folders of one hundred pages each, all about an abortive attempt to get sober at “a drying-out place.” But the attic held random leavings as well, photos and tax returns, letters (in carbon) to and from all of us, plus those question-filled notebooks from the last days. My mother, brother, and I took up stations on the attic floor, creating new piles and sub-piles: things for Winnefred to store, things to send to siblings, duplicate things, things scrawled near the end that none of us could read no matter how hard we tried. Every hour or so, Winnefred would trill, “I wish I could help,” but we were just as happy she couldn’t manage the stairs.
By dinnertime we had ten mailing boxes filled, addressed, and ready to send out—and an equal number of trash bags full of stuff to throw away. Winnefred led us into a backyard being slowly overtaken by the blackberry bushes, where my dad had danced in the ashfall from Mount St. Helens in 1980, and had my brother help roll a giant empty oil barrel into the center of the concrete slab. She handed him kitchen matches and a bottle of charcoal starter and said, “Here’s how we recycle in logging country.”
It didn’t take us long, with all things considered, to dispose of a lifetime of paper. We took turns tossing stuff in and remarking on how they reacted to the flames: onionskin consumed in a crackling second, folders with labelmaker tabs slower and smokier. I asked my mom, who had been teaching herself Cherokee as a roots-retirement project, to suggest a blessing in keeping with dad’s wild spirit, the dark woods, the passing of a life, but she had a better idea. “Burn, baby, burn,” we intoned, circling the barrel till the last sparks faded and nothing but ashes were left.
When I was a magazine editor, back just before the internet, the flow of page proofs and press releases would regularly obscure my inbox and spiral onto the floor. As it built up over each week, I could feel the weight of all that paper as if it were piled on my chest, heavy with words untended, trends unspotted. So I made a habit of coming into the office on Saturdays to try to make a dent in it. In the hopeful quiet of a weekend morning I resolved to be methodical and open-minded. I would sort through the uppermost layers, parcel some out to my staff (who would no doubt throw it away on Monday, but at least the blood wouldn’t be on my hands) then try to read and file the rest. Inevitably, I’d get about halfway through before evening and have to admit, snapping on the lights in my glass office, that this might not be a good use of time. I’d wedge the remaining sheaf of papers into a file drawer—often having to shove back identical sheaves to make room—or deposit it back into my inbox. If I were feeling particularly fed up, I’d carry it down to the street and burrow it into one of the New York City corner trash cans that also never seemed to be emptied. No matter what I did, the flow would be back to its original size again by the next Friday.
Figuring my inability to manage this mess was a career hazard, I hired a professional office organizer. Gwen arrived with a label gun attached to her belt. She asked me lots of questions—How many things was I typically working on simultaneously? How much time did I spend looking for stuff? She poked around my piles. She observed me in action. At the end of the day, she sat me down and fixed her clear gaze on me. “It’s not that you’re disorganized,” she pronounced. “You just have to have everything out where you can see it. Buy some clear plastic bins to keep your projects in. Label everything.”
She paused and leaned in. “Most of all, you’ve got to learn to be brutal with paper: Handle it once and then get rid of it. Show no mercy.”
When I tell people that I hate paper, they assume it’s an environmental thing: that what I object to is the mountain of daily waste, the moldering landfills, the pillage of the forests and the chemical runoff from paper mills polluting ancient rivers.
They’re wrong. My papyrophobia is more visceral than that.
Each piece of paper is a demand to be acknowledged, which only loses its power when it is no longer in my field of vision. Until I unearth it while looking for something else, or go hunting for it after some stray anxiety reminds me of its existence, and then: boom. The shame of the undone task, the tremor of the forgotten fact. It’s a rat king of emotion whose entwined tail includes procrastination and good intentions, the terrible implacability of time and change. And this rat king feeds on paper.
Given paper’s complications, I wonder if my aversion is a disguised desire to forget. Maybe I’m so tired of my own story I just want to shred it, burn it, and send it to the landfill. Perhaps banning paper is a bid for amnesia.
Except that my key to coping with papyrophobia now is an app whose logo is an elephant, as in “never forget.” It lets you make a digital note out of anything—words typed or handwritten, a photo, a news clip—then tag it and save it to your infinite personal filebox in the sky. Your memories don’t take up space in your office. They don’t get lost under junk mail. They’re all somewhere out there, neat and ready, waiting for you. Or whomever.
Because that’s the other thing about digital paper: It might last forever or be gone in an instant, but it’s almost guaranteed not to be yours alone. I find that perversely reassuring—that I am not the sole curator of what to keep and what to lose.
There’s one kind of paper I am still willing to love, papyrophobia or no, and that’s the newspaper. It might be the legacy of my birth, which occurred while my parents were running a weekly paper in Oregon. It might be imprinting from my first job out of college, serving as the sole paid editorial staff person for a barely-above-ground alternative paper. Or it might just be that newspaper by its very nature is ephemeral. You read it, you toss it. I am never happier than when I am reading the New York Times in the morning with my husband, unless it’s when he takes the read paper into his art studio after breakfast to cover the floor as he paints.
It was in the Times that this headline caught my eye: “A Paper Mill Goes Quiet, and the Community It Built Gropes for a Way Forward.” The story was about Millinocket, a town carved out of the Maine woods in the early 1900s in service of the Great Northern Paper Company. At its peak the plant ran twenty-four hours a day. Local rivers were dammed to power it, restaurants and stores bloomed along Main Street to serve it, and half of every graduating class at the local high school went straight into the plant. Then the 1980s hit, and new efficiencies in paper production put the giant mill at a disadvantage; in the nineties, production began shifting overseas; by 2000, demand for paper had gone into steep decline and Great Northern declared bankruptcy; in 2008, the mill shut down for good. A few days before the Times story, the last paper machine was sold off. “Now it’s just dead silence out here,” a town councilman and former millworker told the Times.
In the grips of my paper madness, I think of Millinocket. I think of the US Postal Service fighting to keep Saturday delivery going, despite a mailstream with no love letters, only catalogues and bills. I think of a warehouse I recently walked through in New Orleans, with metal shelving to the twelve-foot ceiling, every inch packed with records from local businesses drowned out in Katrina: “Accounts Receivable Q2 2005,” one box is marked in hopeful green ink. I think of short stories written on grid paper and since either lost or tossed. I think of seven hundred pages of Serenity . And I wonder if papyrophobia is just another form of mourning.