A Passion for Paper Prompts a Two-Sided Life

Paper comes at me. I attract it, the way a magnet draws metal filings. Paper loves me; I love it. As a university research editor, I proof draft upon draft of scientific reports and proposals.

During off-campus hours, my own writing and editing pull more paper my way: flyers from a friend's poetry reading; the first 50 pages of a neighbor's novel; dopey Internet jokes that made the rounds at my family reunion.

A few years ago, I saw a connection between my profligate consumption of paper and the abundance of used paper everywhere. I couldn't ignore the yin-yang of my individual demand and this universal supply. Though it's wantonly discarded, much used paper is only half consumed, still blank on one side.

Thus I resolved to start printing my drafts-in-progress on these pre-owned, already used sheets. But pressing such paper into service at the office soon proved unfeasible, given issues of author/editor confidentiality - not to mention colleagues' confusion about which sides of my missives were meant for their eyes.

As it was, my high-strung, thoroughbred office printer choked on anything but the freshest fodder. Fortunately, my old-gray-mare laser printer at home wasn't half so fussy.

So now I tote my scavenged paper home. I amass it faster than I use it, creating both backlog and time lag.

Lately, I've grown intrigued with my found archives. Though I'm eager to see my own words ooze out of the printer, almost involuntarily I flip the still-warm pages. I'm driven by a curiosity not unlike that which prodded the bear of folk-song fame to see what he could see (namely, the other side of the mountain).

In recent months, I've been writing about e-mail etiquette, the optimal balance of work and leisure, and the disconcerting aspects of long absences from home. Drafts of these diatribes have landed on the backs of:

* A 16-page software short-course tutorial.

* Forms ranking 80 applicants for an editorial job at my office.

* Five iterations of my husband's November travel calendar.

As drafts of my current topics meld with these expired situations, coincidences occur. For instance, one pulpy vestige of the past, a technical report detailing tree-planting strategies, backed my poem about walking in the woods. And one of those 79 "unsuccessful" job applicants (who found work instead as a newspaper reporter) crept out of my printer a year later - or rather his rating sheet did - the same day he received a prestigious journalism award for a series he wrote about unemployment.

I try not to imbue these serendipitous juxtapositions with unwarranted meaning, though it's tempting at times.

The researchers whose work histories are brought to light by my little laser beam can seem like strange bedfellows indeed. But I try to think of them as limited partners in my literary enterprises. Scribbling on the backs of their drafts, I realize that the onus of critique is now entirely on me.

Even when I turn these pages over, I confront my own hasty, red-penned editorial comments on their tidy Times Roman. Occasionally, I overrule that smug editor of yore, wondering just who she thought she was, anyway.

Once, when I inadvertently loaded my printer tray wrong side up, my double-spaced words plopped precisely between someone else's, prompting me to read quite literally between the lines. In a fanciful mood, I dubbed this phenomenon "random co-authorship," imagining some doctoral candidate in rhetorical studies - at a university more liberal than mine - titling her dissertation, "Incidental Texts in the Post-Typewriter Era: Emergence of a Genre."

Still another time, I simply felt sheepish to see my confessional, first-person essay trammeling a renowned scientist's passive-voiced lab results.

INEVITABLY, the time comes when I'm ready to print a clean copy. But I forget to load the printer with spotless white bond. As my pearls appear on the back of another's business, I feel indignant - until I spot that last, tenacious typo: in my name, of all places. Over and over again, my hoard of pre-owned paper saves the pristine stuff for when it's truly needed.

Used paper, my stock in trade, reminds me that there are two sides to every story. Ultimately, I tear each sheet to shreds - deconstructing narratives, demoting great ideas to nonsense, dismantling sentences into gibberish. I commit it all to memory or oblivion, and finally to a blue plastic bin.

Then, and only then, I let the recycling begin.

* Nov. 15 is America Recycles Day.

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