“In Pursuit of Paper”

Our next literary work is by senior writing major Anna Schilke. Anna’s short story was too long to print in the upcoming issue of The Lanthorn, so we are sharing this non-fiction short story with you online. Anna says of her work,

I wrote “In Pursuit of Paper” around themes of tangibility and permanence. In this season of life, most of my time is spent working in visions and revisions, on computer screens, in ideas that pass between books and lectures and a thousand story plots I have yet to write down. For that reason I’ve found the process of paper making – with it’s tactile sloppiness  – to be important, something that grounds me to the world instead of encouraging me to float past it. The piece is a reflection on this; it was a way for me to meld different strands of experiences into a whole.
I hope for this piece what I hope for all of my writing: that readers will find something worthwhile within it, something to enrich their lives.

“In Pursuit of Paper”

– Anna Schilke

I stand, hip propped against the wooden table in the low light of the art studio, trying to balance a deckle. Outside big glass windows, the night hums, the fog curls, the streetlamps glint. Inside, everything is covered in a layer of still dust, the kind that crept in from the pottery studio next door sometime last century and has stayed, motionless, ever since. In fact, nothing in the art studio moves – it’s very peaceful. I’m the sole disturbance, pushing my wooden frame around and causing the pulp to slosh and the vat to shake.

It’s an extensive process, paper making. I didn’t realize that when I signed up for the class – I thought we’d throw some wet bits around and – viola! – paper would appear. But the process begins long before anything resembling paper is formed. It starts with knowledge. With books and diagrams and a spidery label that reads “hyacinth plant.” Hyacinths are fibrous, I’ve learned. More fibrous than, say, blades of grass.

When I told this to my roommate, she laughed at me. “You’re a writing major”, she said, looking up from her copy of City Planning and Practical Urban Design. “I still don’t understand why you need to know that a hyacinth is fibrous.” I laughed too, because she’s right. I don’t know why I’m learning how to make paper either. There are better thing I could be doing; there are essential things I could be doing. Like thinking about the stack of forms on my desk or checking the calendar for the next career fair.

But I’m not doing any of those things. I’m gathering dead plant matter and cooking it, boiling till the strands come apart into long gooey strings. I’m pounding those strings with a mortar, pressing them with a rock, cutting them with a blender, until they are tiny pieces of water and fiber. I’m repeating until I have a whole bucket of flecks and water, enough that when I push an 8×11 screen into the water those tiny flecks will fill the whole surface in a thick jelly. Enough that they will bond with each other, and dry, making sheets. I’m not job searching or figuring out housing or thinking about the moment where an important person will hand me an important paper that tells me I have to leave this place I’ve called home for four years. Instead, I’m making paper.

Or, I’m trying to make paper. I’m sloppy tonight. The deckle misses the pulp, the edges shift, compromising the sheet, and I keep dripping water onto the few pieces I have managed to create. Worst of all, I don’t notice the bubbles and uneven edges; my mind is too preoccupied. Do I pursue a masters? Put more effort into my blog? Become a nomad and move to Alaska? I dip the deckle into the vat again and wait for the pulp to settle. Interviews? I stand there, letting it drip. Applications? I stand there, paused, for the broken fibers to knit together again. Plans? I stand there, motionless, staring out the big glass window. Watching the humming and the curling and the glinting. I stand there, glad that that I’m in here with the still dust and a process I can control. I stand there, relishing a small moment of tangible creation, even though that creation may come out warped and uneven. I stand, hip propped against the wooden table, knowing, eventually, the flecks of pulp will settle, and I will leave.

It takes a long time for paper to dry. Over the next week I will go about making To-Do lists and editing applications and wonder: did it form? Did it fall apart? Until it comes out of the dryer, there’s no way to tell.

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