Writing on tablecloths
Note: I’m taking a short break, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 31, 2015.
Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:
Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.
As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:
He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”
In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.
Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.
These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.