Writing in the Margins

I can’t do it.  I can’t write in the margins of a book.  I can’t allow my hand to fold down the corner of a page until it resembles a fragile origami bird wing.  I can’t make pen marks alongside words that took a writer a year or ten to write and then struggle through the daunting process of publication until the book, at last, reaches the perch of my hands in all its pristine glory.  I can’t overpower the fragile scent of paper with the pungency of a highlighter.  I simply can’t do it.

The act of writing alongside the words of another seems so presumptuous to me … as if my adding to, or even disagreeing with, the work of another writer … would be an insult.  Perhaps it could be close to an assault.

I can’t do it.

Yet, isn’t that what life gives us?  Margins in which to add our stories alongside the stories of others?  Isn’t it?

Maybe life is meant to be examined more closely within its fragile margins.  At its best, life is often gloppy and snotty and messy and filled with many, many ookie moments that can only be fully unfurled when compared alongside the words of others.  Maybe that’s the purpose of books — to give us little spaces of white begging to be filled with the elegance of conversation on paper.  There are words to circle, phrases to highlight.   Windows of insight on which to pencil our own ah hahs.

The other day I sat in a coffee shop, watching a woman unabashedly writing in a book.  With wide eyes, I watched her color whole passages with a fat, hot pink highlighter.  There was such a look of delight spread across her face, I thought she would die of ecstasy, right there on top of her half-consumed Venti flavored coffee thingy-whacky and her pineapple pumpkin raisin scone.  In that moment of observation, something occurred to me.  Instead of being horrified, I thought of myself doing the same thing.  I pictured my tongue planted in the corner of my smiling mouth, a bright pen splashing words in the margins of a favorite book.

I thought of being brave.

I looked down at the book in my lap, Life is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake up, Be Mindful, and Live Life Intentionally by Patti Digh.  In the first pages of this gorgeous book, the author tells her readers, “I hope you will find yourself in the margins, between and beneath the words and perhaps if I’ve done my job, in them.”  Every page is beautifully designed with really, really wide margins, delicious words, the quotes of notables swirled throughout … and luscious graphics, photos and artwork on which we’re invited — no, challenged — to join in a delightful conversation.  Like sitting down with a girlfriend over coffee.  We’re supposed to WRITE IN THE BOOK.

Life is a Verb is meant to be a rolling conversation, rather than a pristine shelf book.  It’s designed to be messed up, coffee-stained on, dog-eared and cracked wide open.  It is supposed to be inhabited.  Our footprints are supposed to be visible.  David Pollard said in his review of the book, “So read it.  Inhabit it.  Breathe in every word, because every word of this book is essential.  Let it animate you.  Annotate it to make it your own.  And then let it let you change yourself, and become who you were intended to be.  Begin now. You have no time to lose.”

Annotate it to make it your own?  Oh Lordy.  I can’t even crayon up a coloring book!

Yet here I am … a purple-ink pen perched in my trembling fingers (because purple is such a conversational color).   I hover over a page on which I have something tiny to say.  Just a little thing, really — a mousy squeak from what has been a perennially silent voice when it comes to writing or coloring in books.

I move the pen closer, closer … closer.

And — THEN — I draw a box around a word that I have carefully selected … margins.

It’s just a small box, around just that one word, but with that teeny, yet trembling gesture  … I.  Am.  Liberated.

0 thoughts on “Writing in the Margins

  1. I share this ‘problem’ with you. But have found liberation in altered books, the writing/artform in which you take old books and create art and word rearrangements. And in blackout poetry in which the entire object is to mark across the page to find new words, poems and meaning.

    Be bold! Break the rules!

  2. Not me. A book isn’t mine until I’ve muddied it. I dog ear…even elephant ear! if I want to be reminded of a particular passage in a book.

    I underline, circle, draw arrows in and out, write comments willy-nilly. It’s fun!!

    I bet that mousy squeak will turn into a lioness roar in no time. I dare ya!! 🙂

    Thanks as always for sharing Auburn. I always enjoy your musings. XO

  3. With those books that are my property, I have no adversion to marking, annotating, or indicating something of interest. I’ll highlight or underline words and phrases that interest me, or ones in which I think I detect a grammatical or typographical error. Should the book in question belong to someone else, a friend, or the library by chance, I automatically restrain myself with the idea of returning it in the same pristine condition I received it.


  4. I’ve now cleverly solved the “problem” with my aversion to mess up those books that are lovely beyond reason, as is “Life is a Verb.” I bought a second one — Now I have one to retain its prettiness and one in which to add my messiness.

    Have Highlighter, Will Mark Up!


  5. Yes. I do that too when the marking up gets out of hand. Especially in a ‘work-type’ book like Life is a Verb. If I go through it a second time I want a clean slate and a fresh experience.

    Mark On, O Fearless One! 😀

  6. Oh.


    It happened to me. I read this poem in Mary Oliver’s book “Evidence” My hand went to the top of the page…and froze. I couldn’t dog ear or mark up the page.

    Well. If it was going to happen, it’s understandable that it happened with Mary.

    Moon and Water
    by Mary Oliver

    I wake and spend
    the last hours
    of darkness
    with no one

    but the moon
    She listens
    to my complaints
    like the good

    companion she is
    and comforts me surely
    with her light.
    But she, like everyone,

    has her own life.
    So finally I understand
    that she has turned away,
    is no longer listening.

    She wants me
    to refold myself
    into my own life.
    And, bending close,

    as we all dream doing,
    she rows with her white arms
    through the dark water
    which she adores

    • I’m with you on this, my dear friend. There’s not a soul in their right mind who would have been able to dog ear that gorgeous Mary Oliver poem! Thank you so much for sharing it here.