I’ll Keep my Laptop, Thank You

Yesterday, a friend tweeted this article on The Guardian, “Unthinkable? Bring Back Typewriters.” While the author makes some great points about how using a typewriter slows the writer down, thereby making writers more intentional about word choices, and how typewriters remove the distracting allure of the internet, I’d have to say, “hell no!!” I’ll keep my laptop thank you very much.

In fact, I wonder if the author ever had to actually type something that mattered on a typewriter, like a research paper or even an important letter. If so, I think the nostalgia for the click of the keys would quickly wear off.

I still have my antique ribbon typewriter. It has lived buried in the back of my daughter’s closet for years. When I was seven or eight years old, my Dad brought it home for me to write my stories on. It made me official. I was a writer.

I never use it, but I’ve lugged the thing with me for my entire life. It weighs around 50 lbs. and represents my youthful attempts at writing, my dreams to become a writer someday.

My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.

My ancient typewriter that made me feel like a true writer.

I actually don’t remember writing that much on it. I remember spending more time trying to get it to work so I could write. The ribbon would come unwound, little mechanical metal pieces would get stuck. I remember jamming more than one butter knife in to get it going again.

You also have to hit the keys hard to get them to work. Fingers don’t fly over these old keyboards. Nope, typing a sentence gives the fingers a pretty good workout. One letter at a time.

If you hit more than one key at a time, the little letter bars fly up at the same time and stick to each other, creating a mess and nothing gets typed. It’s the equivalent of your computer screen freezing, but in this case all you have to do is reach a hand in and unstick everything. There are definitely days that I wish I could do that with my laptop.

All the keys stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.

All the striker bars stuck together in a wad. This happened a lot.

Typing is a sensory experience unlike writing on a computer. There is the sound of the letter striker bars (or whatever they’re called) hitting the paper and the carriage. You have to watch where you are because at the end of each line, the typewriter doesn’t automatically “wrap” around. As the typist, you have to reach up and move the carriage back to the left margin. It’s labor intensive. Mistakes cannot be fixed.

The letters are also quirky, with each typewriter having its own “fingerprint.”

The Letters

The Letters

I loved reading mysteries as a kid (and still do), and I remember typewriters often providing clues. Detectives would study typewriter fonts with the forensic intensity that today’s CSI investigators go after DNA evidence.

photo(6)

No MS Word conformity here. My typewriter has a definite style. The “e’s” are all red. For some reason it dropped down a half a line halfway through the word “kind.” If I had committed a crime and left a clue on my typewriter, I’d definitely be caught.

Perhaps it would be good to create clues for a mystery on this, but I think that’s about it. I won’t be cranking out any stories on this old thing, but I also don’t think I’ll get rid of it. It’s comforting to know that even though I haven’t used it since the early 1980’s, I still can. My computer would never work like that. I could not shove it in a kid’s closet, have kids sit on it during games of hide and seek, leave it there for 20+ years, pull it out one day, write something on it and then print it to paper like I did with my typewriter this morning.

I have no idea whatever happened to any of the stories I wrote, or even if I ever finished a whole story on it due to all of the issues with actually using it. Even so, when I think of my typewriter, I think of my 8 year old self imagining stories, and for that alone, I’ll hang on to it. It reminds me that yes, I am a writer.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

pic from microsoft word clip art

One of my goals for this spring break was to take my laptop to a coffee shop and write.  Just about every time I enter into a coffee shop, I see people with laptops.  Clearly, there is a portion of the population who find them productive places to work, and I wanted to see if it worked for me, if pushing myself out of my quiet writing comfort zone worked or if I found it horribly distracting.

When I told my husband my plan, he responded by telling me about his good friend who works in coffee shops just so he can check out all the good looking moms who go in during the work day to meet with their friends though my devoted hubby swears he’s never carted his laptop into Starbucks to work.  Hmmmm.

My concerns with writing in a public place were that I’d see people that I know since I live and teach in a small town.  I worried that I’d spend my entire allotted writing time catching up with someone.  I was also concerned that it might be too noisy or that I’d spend my entire time watching everyone else since I am an avid people watcher.  My last concern was that I’d feel self-conscious and silly trying to write in public and that would squash my creativity.

I hoped that the change in venue would jumpstart the writing goals I had set for this week off of work, so Saturday afternoon, I packed up my clipboard filled with paper, my favorite writing pen, my favorite writing book for when I’m stuck, and my laptop.  I wanted all bases covered.  I chose a smaller shop for my experiment, and I went all the way to town, forgoing the small shop in my community, in which I was sure to see friends or students.

When I first walked in, I knew the first person I saw, the cashier.  Uh oh. She greeted me by name and began to chat, so I decided to sit on a couch out of sight of the front counter though knowing her did come in handy when she called out, “Amy, these your keys on the counter?” They were.

I ensconced myself in the rear corner of the shop on a comfy couch, and I didn’t feel self-conscious at all.  I began by writing by hand which I often do, but quickly switched to my laptop.  The words flowed. A few people came in and out of the shop, but it was relatively quiet other than the employees chatting.  I ended up writing over 1800 words and liking what I wrote. For me, this is a successful writing session.

I’m not sure that writing in a public place is something I would want to do every day or even every month, but to jumpstart my writing, it worked.

Apparently, my muses like the occasional latte too.  They definitely came to visit.

Where do scenes come from?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve spent the last two weeks taking notes and writing down ideas anticipating the day I’d have time to sit down and write something.  After working probably 75+ hours over each of the last two weeks (sometimes being a high school teacher and coach can suck every second of every day and every ounce of energy from me, and I write nothing, including my blog), I finally spent much of the day on Sunday actually writing and putting those notes into action, fitting all the little pieces of the puzzle into scenes that hopefully tell a good story.

Where did the scene ideas come from? Let me share:

  •  Historical research – a good half of my novel takes place in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. I love research and history, so writing this part has been fun.  Some of the interesting facts I have discovered that I couldn’t leave out of the story include the existence of a library at Fort Hall, Idaho.  A “mountain man” refers to it in his journal and his visits to get books.  Another is that Indians used porcupine quills tied together with rawhide to brush their hair.  There are numerous little details like this that I find fascinating.  I don’t know if they’ll all find their way into the final draft, but I’ve enjoyed finding them and figuring out how to include them without slamming the reader with history.  I don’t want a reader to read a passage and think, “wow, that scene was written merely for that random piece of trivia.” I want it to flow but also to reflect some of those details that make history so interesting to me.
  • Planning – some scenes I’ve just had to plan from beginning to end following classic scene structure.  What are the characters’ goals? What is the action? What is the major conflict? Who’s going to talk to whom? And finally, what is the disaster that will finish the scene and raise the stakes for everyone?
  • The muses come to play – this is my favorite.  When I sit down, I almost always have a general idea of what I want to write or where I want to go, but then as I start to write, great things start to happen.  Events that I haven’t planned occur.  Characters have great conversations or arguments.  Wise and witty words pop from their mouths. These are days when I feel like a writer.
  • Stories or conversations I hear – yep, if I know you and you tell me something funny or crazy or I’m with you during a noteworthy event, I figure its fair game.  I wonder, “how could I tie that in”? These are not stories that completely change the plot, just little things.  For example, last week I was shopping with one of my students for supplies to run a concession stand, and the store didn’t have any more of that disgusting nacho cheese sauce.  (If you don’t think it’s disgusting, put it in your crockpot for six hours with HS kids ladling it all over the sides, and then try to wash the crockpot.  You won’t ever eat it again.)  Anyway, as I was panicking over the lack of nacho supplies, he looked at me, grabbed his phone and said, “Don’t worry Mrs. Isaman, I’ll just call my Sysco lady.  She’ll take care of us.” You’re Sysco lady? For those of you who don’t know, Sysco is a restaurant supply company.  The entire conversation sounded like some sort of nacho drug deal.  The Sysco lady pulled the products for him (nacho cheese and hot dogs) and dropped it in the shed for him to pick up later. I’m not kidding. To explain, his mom is a caterer and he has worked for her for years, hence, the Sysco lady, but it was really funny, something that will probably appear, somewhere, someday in some piece of writing.
  • My own crazy life – Have you ever said or written something and as soon as it came out of your mouth or appeared on the screen, you felt sort of surprised that you knew that, shocked by your own wisdom, but then you thought about it, and realized why you knew it?  You knew it because you lived it, not the exact situation but the feel of it.  That might sound strange, but I think reaching middle age has given me something to say.  I’ve lived half of a life, and I’m comfortable sharing and reflecting on it.  I wasn’t even five years ago.  This is the part of the scene that isn’t just the conflict or the action, but the explanation of it, the why.  The part when the character reflects on what has happened or what will happen.  It’s the character part of the scene.

Where do your scenes or ideas come from? I’d love to hear.

Messy Desk = Inspiration

I’ve decided to give up on my desk.  I’ve rearranged it, organized it, tidied it dozens of times, but by the end of my every writing session, it looks the same way, disastrous. This is odd for me.  I’m a fanatically organized person.  If there was such a thing called “Organizer’s Anonymous” I would probably be a member. I love going into stores like Office Max and browsing all the organizational supplies.  It’s like how some women feel walking into Nordstrom’s shoe department.  My heart races, I pick up colorful packets of sticky notes or cool expandable files and think about how I can put them to good use, like some other women pick up a pair of shoes and dream of all the outfits they would complete.

In either case, it’s probably some sort of unhealthy obsessive behavior, but one which my writing space seems to be making a stab at healing in me.  Despite repeated tidying sessions and a vow to keep it clean, it just doesn’t.  Almost like it can’t.

I spent 20 minutes the other day scouring the house for my ipod ear buds, so I could listen to music, write, and tune out “Pretty Little Liars,” my daughter’s current favorite TV show.  I searched my bedroom, both my kids’ rooms, the family room, everywhere I could possibly think.  I finally borrowed my daughter’s pair, only to sit down and see a little piece of white wire underneath a precarious stack on my desk.

Several books, a binder, a three-hole puncher, a journal, sticky note pads, a basket of pens, and piles of loose paper balanced atop my long lost ear buds which had been there the entire time.  Thankfully, they hadn’t been completely digested or seasoned with the half cup of coffee I had spilled earlier on the other side of the desk.  I could still use them.

My desk seems to have mind of its own, almost like one of my characters that I think should be responding to a situation in one way but who insists on responding in their way, thank you very much.  I argue with them, but they usually win.  If I insist on doing things my way, I get stuck.  Sometimes, it’s just easier relent, let them have their way, just like sometimes it’s easier to give in to the arguing two year old (or sixteen year old).   So, I’m giving in . . . to my desk.

Writing desk, this is for you:  “You can stay a mess.  You can inspire me in your disastrous, paper laden state.  I will not spend time organizing, tidying, or pondering why you like it this way.  I give up.  I trust you.  I am learning the lesson that maybe I just write better in a messy space.  Thank you for your patience with me, and please, keep the inspiration coming.”

What I Learned at my First Writing Conference

This past weekend, I traveled to Portland, Oregon and attended the Willamette Writer’s Conference. I learned enough to fill twenty blog posts, so I decided to try to condense the experience into a single list of major lessons.

1)      I learned that you can pitch an incomplete novel.  No agent will buy it, but they’ll give you great feedback.  I signed up for this conference last spring having only written a small portion of my novel. I even signed up for pitch sessions, not realizing that I was supposed to be completely done with the book before I pitched it.  Oops.  Prior to getting to Oregon, I realized my error, called the conference people, and asked if I should cancel those sessions.  I didn’t want to waste the agents’ time.  They said, “No way.  Go for it.  You’ll learn something.”  They were right.   I spoke with two agents and one editor, each of whom were kind and not even a little bit scary.  They happily answered my questions, gave me helpful feedback, and asked questions about areas they found confusing or unclear, letting me know that these are areas I need to address.

2)      I learned that it’s a really bad idea to argue or get defensive with an agent during practice and real pitch sessions.  You come across as arrogant and difficult.  I watched this happen several times when agents asked writers who were pitching to them to clarify a point, or the agents offered suggestions for improvement. People got angry and argumentative.  You could watch the agent’s body language as they wrote these difficult people off as potential clients.  With that said . . .

3)      I learned that pitching a novel well is really hard.

4)      I learned that lots of elderly people write.  In fact, the demographic of conference attendees shocked me.  So many attendees were old, as in “needing a walker to get around” old.  At first that made me a little sad for them.  Were they just now able to find time in their lives to write?  Had they worked at some soul-sucking job their whole lives just waiting for the day they would finally have time to tell their story?  This seemed like such a tragedy. Then I realized (actually my brilliant sister pointed out) that these people still hadn’t given up on their dream of writing.  They were still out their learning, writing, sharing, dreaming even if they have never gotten on Facebook, written a tweet, or read a blog.  That’s a good thing.  It’s never too late to follow a dream.  Hopefully, I’ll be published before I need a walker, but if not, there’s still room for me at writing conferences.  Good to know.

5)      I learned there is no such thing as “The Writing Process.”  The sign the school district requires me to post in my classroom outlining this process is a bit of a farce.  After talking with and listening to a huge variety of writers, I know, without a doubt, that every single one of them has their own writing process.  Trying to teach the writing process seems somewhat silly.  I’ve known this for a while with my students and have tried to encourage kids to find their process, but actually talking to “real writers” about made it finally sink in that this is a crucial lesson.

6)      I learned that there are lots of passionate writers out there and some really fabulous unpublished novels.  As writers shared their stories, I kept wanting to read them, not just hear about them.  They sound great!  On the one hand, the writer in me realized how much competition there is out there, but on the other hand, the reader in me is excited to get my hands on these stories someday.

7)      I learned that it is possible to go to a workshop on virtually any aspect of writing but sometimes just writing is as helpful to my learning as anything.  A conference lasting for three weeks, broken into round the clock hour and a half long sessions, wouldn’t be long enough to cover all the aspects of fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays that could possibly be taught.  There is so much information out there, so much to learn.  I spent yesterday sifting through all the handouts and notes, trying to organize them, but then I stopped sorting and just started to write.  I can read and study all day, but I’ll learn the most when I’m actually writing, practicing my craft, and applying the lessons.

8)      Finally, I learned that even though there is so much that I don’t know, there is a lot that I do know.  I need to honor that.  I’m an English teacher.  I have an MA in literature.  I read constantly and love good books.  I teach them and conference with my students about them every single day of the school year.  This is all helpful in my new life as a writer.  There is obviously a ton I still need to learn, but I think I have a pretty good foundation.

I’ll let you know if that’s true after I actually pitch a completed novel.

A Noisy, Impatient Spider

Spider web in the Redwoods

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d, where  on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;

Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;

Ever unreeling them–ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,

Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, –seeking the spheres, to connect them;

Till the bridge you will need, be form’d–till the ductile anchor hold;

Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I almost just want to say . . . “nuf said,” as this poem perfectly captures both the photo and my own journey right now, but . . . I can’t.

My daughter took this shot on our vacation to the California coast and the Redwood Forests last week.  I hadn’t seen the shot until I uploaded the pics off the camera when we got home.  Not only is it an amazing photograph (at least to me –  her completely unbiased mom), it reminded me of Walt Whitman’s poem, “A Patient, Noiseless Spider.”  I almost cried when I re-read the poem.  I hadn’t read it for years, but as soon as I saw the photo, I remembered the last line of the poem.

It’s interesting how our memories work.  Right now, this poem has far more meaning to me than it did the first time I read it as an undergrad twenty some years ago, and some little part of my brain remembered it, dredged it up for me to re-read when it actually means something to me.  I had it all figured out then.  Now?  Not so much.

Unlike the spider, I am not so patient or quiet, despite my best efforts.

Like the spider, I too am ever unreeling and speeding out threads, “musing, venturing, throwing – seeking,” praying that they catch, connecting me to my purpose here is on this earth.

I am on the right path.  I am writing, I am creating. I am exploring, spinning threads, and I will keep throwing them out there until I have created something as lovely as this web in the sunlight.  And maybe, just maybe, somebody else will think so too.

The Muses Must Play

Yesterday, I sat at the computer all morning, ready to write.  I have a time line here.  It’s summer vacation, and it ends in six weeks.  I need to write . . . NOW!  I have goals!  My muses don’t seem to be getting my sense of urgency as they failed to bless me with their presence for the third day in a row.  Apparently they don’t like to be ordered around.

I felt abandoned, so I tried a few different strategies:  I grabbed a favorite book off the shelf and opened it to a random page, reading great writing for inspiration . . . nothing.

I read a few blogs on writing . . . nothing.

I got on you tube and watched some videos of a fiddler since there’s one in the scene I’m writing . . . nothing.

I kept going and standing in front of the refrigerator.  I wasn’t hungry, but thought that feeding my stomach would possibly feed some ideas into my head . . . nothing, other than to make my ass a little bit cushier when I sit down to write.

Blocks that still aren't all sewn together

Finally, I forced myself to write half the fiddling scene until I gave up and left my computer for my sewing machine.

Maybe stitching a few blocks would inspire me.  I pulled some blocks off my design wall and began to put them together.  I was chain piecing them and at the end of each row instead of pulling the blocks out and snipping the thread, I grabbed two random scraps from my scrap bucket, sewed them together and then clipped the blocks off to press.  A friend showed me this technique to save thread.  Ultimately, you get enough pieces of scraps sewn together, and you have a whole new piece of “scrap” fabric, and maybe a teeny tiny dent in the scrap bucket.

Soon, my blocks were pushed aside, and I found myself surrounded with piles of scraps – the ironing board, the floor, my sewing table, all were covered with little pieces that were growing into bigger pieces.

My "new" scrappy fabric

I had a ball.  It was creative, fun, and probably most important, not forced.  I wasn’t planning on spending three hours making new scrap fabric, but I did.  I completely lost track of time.  I didn’t realize how much I needed to just play.  My muses are back this morning; apparently they like to play too.

If I demand they show up, they laugh at me and go their own merry way, off to play without me, leaving me to figure out, yet again, that I can’t force creativity.  I need to honor the process.