David James Duncan on Paper:

“Love Paper.

A tree gave its life for what you are about to attempt. Don’t let the silicon chip or computer monitor cause you to forget this. That ex-tree material stacked in your printer is so dead as you begin to write that its bark-skinned, earth-eating, oxygen-producing, bird-supporting, squirrel-housing body has been reduced to an inert blank expanse of white. To find the life of language and lay that life down on the paper is to redeem the sacrificed life of the tree.

In order to do this, we must see paper as clearly as Inuits see snow. Our language is the second greatest living proof (actions being the greatest) of what we do and do not see. Listen to how Inuit people see: apun (snow); apingaut (first snowfall); aput (spread-out snow); ayak(snow on clothes); kannik (snowflake); nutagak (powder snow); aniu (flat, hard-packed snow); aniuvak (packed snowbank); natigvik (snowdrift); kimaugruk (snowdrift that blocks something); perksertok (drifting snow); akelrorak (newly drifted snow); mavsa (snowdrift overhead, about to fall); kaiyuglak (the rippled surface of snow); pukak (sugar-like snow); pokaktok (salt-like snow); misulik (sleet); massak (snow mixed with water); auksalak(melting snow); aniuk (snow for melting into water); akillukkak (soft snow); milik (very soft snow); mitailak (soft snow that covers an opening in an ice flow); sillik (old hard crusty snow); kiksrukak (glazed snow in a thaw); mauya (snow that can be broken through);katiksunik (light snow); katiksugnik (light snow that is deep for walking).

Love paper. Paper is writer’s snow (apun).

Paper is the blank white element we live upon: element that receives and records our every step. The receptacle of our lives and nuances deserves an Inuit depth of respect. I lack names for the many kinds of pages I see here in my study, but looking through drawers, shelves, wastebasket, manuscript boxes, I find:

virgin paper, still in the ream. (Apingaut—first snowfall.)

I find paper at which I stare long, unable to write a word. (aniuvak—packed snowbank.)

I find a scrap of paper upon which, in the middle of the night, I write down an urgent message from the heart, but leave the light off so as not to wake my wife, only to find in the morning that after the words, “And when a prayer fails to…” my pen ran out of ink. (auksalak—melting snow.)

I find paper at which I am staring when, between the words, a door opens, and inside is an imaginary Room, and inside the Room are People; I find paper on which I write what the People are doing in the Room, and paper in which the People lure me clear into the Room, addressing me now as one of their own. (mauya— snow that can be broken through.)

I find paper upon which, in the midst of an intimate disclosure from an elegant Room Woman, a phone rings (my phone, not hers), and then a neighbor stops by (my neighbor, not hers), and I am so long distracted that when I return to the paper and Room Woman I begin to spill my own thoughts, not hers, failing to notice that for hours I have not only cut her off in mid-disclosure, stood her up, treated her terribly, I have lost the way back to her wonderful Room. (kimaugruk—snowdrift that blocks something.)

I find paper on which I write so stupidly, aimlessly, roomlessly and unimaginatively that at the end of the day I wad it up and throw it across my study, then wad and throw a few blank sheets for good measure. (mitailak—soft snow that covers an opening in an ice flow.)

I find blank sheets unwadded in shame, and spoken to rather than written upon, paper I audibly promise that—during the hours and in the place foresworn to the People of the Imaginary Room—I will spill only their thoughts, not my own. (aniuk—snow for melting into water.)

I find paper at which I stare long and stupidly, unable to write a word—paper that at day’s end leaves me filled with shame even though, by not writing upon it, I have kept my solemn promise to the Room People. (aniu—flat, hard-packed snow.)

I find the dismayingly small stack of computer-printed pages on which I earlier wrote with self-effacing skill of the Room People, pages I begin to idly edit, after the People once again refuse to appear. (sillik—old hard crusty snow.)

I find, on these same computer-printed pages, a space between two words—a space no wider than the head of an ant—yet as I trying to smooth an awkward phrase in that space(kannik—snowflake), two tiny hands rise up out of the paper, a new Room Person climbs into sight, and this Person begins singing—to the glorious ruin of my earlier draft—the true and living story hidden behind everything I had written and not written so far.

I find paper on which I have so faithfully written not what I want but what is there to be told(be it ayaknutagak, or akillukkak) that when I read it again days later its doors still open, the People in its Rooms still laugh/struggle/shout/hate/love/die, and a silent voice hidden in the next sheet of white tells me as I touch it whether it is kiksrukak or auksulak we must watch for now.


A straight line in the right place can bring you to tears. – Frederick Sommer (as overheard by Emmet Gowin)

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. – Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step”



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