Guest Post

Pen or Pencil?: Some thoughts on mistakes (Guest post)

My friend recently showed me a set of beautiful pencils she was buying. We’re both proponents of nice writing instruments, and I was glad she had found a new set that made her heart sing. During this conversation I mentioned that I a) did not care to use pencils very often, and b) dreaded using an eraser. The eraser is really more of a practical bit – I just don’t like all those little tiny eraser shreds after use. But I started to really think about my preference for pens over pencils, my preference for permanency.

I make a lot of mistakes. I’m sure most people do, but some days it feels like I make more than the average bear. Despite this, I’m still willing to do the crossword puzzles in pen, with little scratch-outs and letters that have been written over several times. My errors are plainly visible to anyone looking over my shoulder or coming behind me (yes, I even start the crosswords at the doctor’s office in pen.)

My lifelong movement journey has been filled with mistakes. Some of them are permanently written on my brain, while others are more visible on my body. A limp here, a grimace at a particular movement there. The days when my brain says moving will not make me feel better, despite years of that being untrue. The flashbacks to an adolescent gym class when I was told I was too slow, too fat, or too much of a girl to do a particular activity or sport. Some of these mistakes aren’t mine, but they are indelibly stained onto my body.

After years of ignoring my body and believing it needed to look a certain way or do certain things, I sometimes still struggle to align my body and brain. This isn’t about celebrating all the things I can do – I’ve become very good at that. It’s more about the actual link between movement and thought. I’m not very coordinated, and my brain and my muscles don’t always connect together. If someone tells me to swim down the lane like Katie Ledecky my brain is sure that I am doing just that. I am sleek, I am strong, and I am fast. When I come back to the edge I can’t help but notice I’m not nearly as fast as Katie (who is!?) and when I watch video of my swim I see I’m not following any of the swim instructions my brain was sure I was excelling at. I look more like a fish out of water, not the graceful mermaid I had imagined. The disconnection between brain and muscle can feel overwhelming some days.

I’m not saying my pen over pencil preference is the perfect metaphor here. On some level I just prefer a pen. I like the weight of a heavier pen and the feel of the ink scratching onto the page. I prefer a blue or a purple ink. I truly do dislike the feel and the mess of those little eraser shavings after an edit has been made. These are just my preferences, of course, and I’ll gladly support yours for something different.

Although there have been disagreements between my body and brain over the years I’ve been proud of the things my body (and my brain) have accomplished. There has been a lot of joy in movement. And still, after all this time of putting my mistakes out there (in pen!) for everyone to see I’ve started to appreciate the openness of that. It feels good to have a record of what worked and what needed correction as my body and brain find more alignment with one another. Last month I found myself “riding to the beat of the music,” moving my legs in the same 1-2, 1-2 pattern as the cycling instructor was calling out. The sense of accomplishment in that small act was enormous, scratching out and writing over some of the old words I’d written on my body.

Amy in a blue sweater staring into the distance and squinting in the sun

Amy Smith is a professor of Media & Communication and a communication consultant who lives north of Boston. Her research interests include gender communication and community building. Amy spends her movement time riding the basement bicycle to nowhere, walking her two dogs, and waiting for it to get warm enough for outdoor swimming in New England.

4 thoughts on “Pen or Pencil?: Some thoughts on mistakes (Guest post)

  1. The “pen = permanent” association has been totally broken for me since discovering frixion pens. Not like the old gunky papermate erasables, these write beautifully and erase without gunk, through moderate heat. It’s true they’re not archival and shouldn’t be used for legal documents and such. But for agendas and journaling and commenting on student papers, I love them!

  2. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, and welcome to the blog! One reason why I like lake and other open water swimming is that we don’t have lanes to have to stay in. Sometimes it’s fun to exercise within the prescribed patterns, but freely moving is joyful too. I’m guessing you think the same!

    1. I love any water movement, structured or unstructured. I call swimming my “underwater therapy.” But there is something special about open water and the ability to “go anywhere.” 🙂

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