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.

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.

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.

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.

Thinking teens exist . . . we are not doomed

I judged a round of Original Oratory yesterday morning at the National Forensics Tournament here in Dallas.  No, this is not a tournament as to who can fingerprint the fastest á la CSI but rather a tournament that brings together the best high school speakers and debaters across the country to compete in a variety of events.

The student competitors are an amazing group of young men and women.  (In fact, if you are ever feeling fearful for the future of our country, volunteer to judge next fall at a local Forensics/Speech and Debate Tournament.  I guarantee you will feel better about both this country’s youth and our future.)

In one round, I judged seven Original Oratories.  An Oratory is an original speech written by the speaker, hence the name “Original Oratory.”  Some students made me laugh . . . a lot, while others impressed me with their research or eloquent delivery, but most importantly, they each made me think.  The speeches are both persuasive and motivational in nature, and the best ones leave the listener feeling both inspired and questioning the status quo.

It’s amazing to listen to young men and women question our society and culture.  These kids get it.  They may not have the solutions to our problems, but they are far more aware of what’s going on than we, as a society, often give them credit for.  Their commentary on life is thought provoking and inspired.

One excellent speech addressed the one sided nature of sex education in our country.  In her health class she learned how to properly “install” a condom on a cucumber (really?!?) and knew all kinds of details about the physical mechanics of sex but the curriculum never addressed the emotional impact and consequences of being sexually active at a young age.  Hmmm . . . interesting, and, I would agree, a problem.

In another speech, a student talked about the self-esteem movement that has merely led to a generation of narcissists who consider themselves above average but have nothing to back that claim up.  As a teacher, I can’t say that I disagree with him.

A third speaker in that room tackled Yoda’s quote from Star Wars, “Do or do not.  There is no try,” and he discussed the value of realistic goal setting.

These are Juniors and Seniors in High School who have figured this stuff out early.  They get it. There’s more to sex than what we see in movies and on TV, false praise doesn’t lead to excellence but rather to narcissism, and we need to believe we can achieve realistic goals if we hope to do so.

As a writer this inspires me.  If a teenager can write something that really makes me think, then maybe I can too.  I won’t get there without hard work and some realistic goals, but at forty one, I already know this . . . right?

Starting in the Middle

I’ve been surprised over the past few weeks how this project is coming together, kind of piecemeal, not all orderly like I approach most of my life.  I am a list maker, an outliner, a planner.  My kids tease me that “Mom, it’s okay not to ‘have a plan’ for the day,” assuring me that it’ll be “alright.”  Really, it’s that bad sometimes.

When I started this novel adventure, I approached it how I usually approach a writing project.  I gathered all my resources; I researched, read, and took notes; I outlined and plotted; I developed characters.  And then, I thought I would start at the beginning.  That’s where I’ve always started every paper, essay, my Master’s thesis etc. – the beginning.  It seems like the logical place to start.  Apparently not.

Either I’m starting to let go and listen to my creative self a little bit better, or I just approach fiction a little differently, or at least a long fiction project, than I do non-fiction projects.  The short stories I have written I have started at the beginning and worked through until the end, but for my novel, I have random scenes written throughout.  I work on whatever I feel like.  If inspiration hits, I write that part.  It’s been so fun – who knew?

The other day I was reading a stack of 9th grade papers.  My students wrote them as a culmination of a fun end of the year Writer’s Workshop unit in which we studied “using punctuation in interesting ways to create voice.”  “How do authors use dashes, ellipses, fragments etc?  What do they achieve when they use them?” were the questions we asked as we read quite a few mentor texts, and they wrote practice pieces.  They could write their final piece on any topic; they enjoyed this assignment.  How do I know?  The final papers were super fun to read; they got it, the whole idea that language is fun and they can play with it to achieve an emotion or a mood in their writing.  As I was reading, twice I read lines that made me think of my story.  I had to stop right there, grab a piece of paper and write segments of scenes.  When I got home that night, I expanded them, and I still like them.

My muse is a funny thing.  I have no idea when inspiration will strike or what it will inspire.  However, I think my planning (or over-planning according to my kids) has been helpful because now when inspiration does strike, I have a good idea of where that piece will fit in the larger picture, but it’s certainly not exact.  I’m trying really hard to just go with it.  To let go, to allow this process to teach me whatever I need to know about how I work and the best way for me to work.   This is new territory for me, to work organically and not in a completely linear fashion.  But, overall, I think I like starting in the middle.  Now, if I could just think of a really great first line, life would be great.

Read . . . Reflect . . .Write

I am an avid reader.  Literary, historical fiction and fantasy are the books most often found stacked on my bedside table, but when I first started this novel writing project, I set those aside and immersed myself in books on a new genre, “how to write fiction.”  Those books have been interesting and helpful but after completing three of them, I needed a break.  Last week, I took one and picked up a really great novel, The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff.  I loved it, and the entire time I was reading I kept thinking about why I was enjoying it so much.  I don’t usually spend much time reflecting while I read – I just enjoy the story and move on to the next one.  But for this novel, I kept asking myself why I was staying up until midnight, knowing that my alarm would go off at 5:00 am, to read this book?  What was making this novel so compelling to me?  What made one character sympathetic,  another likeable, and another truly evil?  How did the author create suspense and tension?  And on and on.  I’ve never thought quite so much about why I enjoyed a novel during the reading process, and this reflection is due, without a doubt, to my recent writing adventure.

I also realized that I was doing what many authors of “how to write” books do.  They use their favorite novels as examples which they then break down for the reader.  While some of their points are helpful, I realized that I can actually do this all by myself.  I guess that English degree is useful for something!

I’ve decided that even though my time is at a premium, continuing to read fiction as I journey down this writing road is crucial.  If I plan to write for others, I must know what I like and why I like it.   Sure I can find the answers to these questions in “how-to” books, but I think I can also find them within myself if I continue to read and reflect on it.  This is good news!!  When I get sucked into a great book that I can’t put down, I can rest, knowing that I am actually “working” on my novel.  Right?!?

Blogs, novels and . . . piles of fabric?

I am apparently compelled to create.  I finished a large scrappy quilt project last night, finally putting the last hand stitches in the binding and the label on the back for posterity’s sake.  I made the quilt for my sister for her 43rd birthday.  It’s a scrappy “fairy garden” for Megan.

My sister has an affinity for fairies.  I love the quilt – it’s scrappy, colorful, and fun.  The design process was especially fun, playing with all the fabrics on my design wall until I felt like the light fabrics reflected the sun shining across the garden just right.  Actually pulling each individual block off my wall and sewing got a little bit tedious, but the entire time I completed this mindless step, my mind wandered to my story.  I would sew, and then grab my notebook to take notes, sew some more, jot down a few new ideas etc.  But I kept viewing the sewing as a hindrance to my writing.  “If I could just get this quilt done, than I can really focus on my writing,” I kept thinking to myself. So last night, when I put those last stitches in, I headed to my sewing corner to clean up the last remnants of this project, determined to put my sewing projects away for awhile.

Finally, now I could focus on my writing as my sole creative endeavor.

But . . . nooo . . . apparently NOT!  That would make my life far too easy.  As I began to tidy up, I spied a really cute quilt pattern a friend gave me a few months ago.  And then I started thinking of another friend who “needs” a quilt.  I spent the next hour perusing through my fabric stash pulling browns, blues, creams, grays, and some unexpected pops of orange and red.  It’s going to be a great quilt!

I kept “yelling” at myself as I was pulling fabric.  “Really Amy, what are you doing?  Remember, you wanted to finish quilting for a while! Do you need to do this?”  But I finally had to admit to myself that it’s the creative process that’s important.  My mind runs a zillion miles an hour, but sewing is almost meditative for me.  I can think.  So maybe that pattern I spied in the corner was God’s little nudge saying, this is part of how you write.  Use it.  Okay God, I get it.  So now, I still have, a blog to write, a novel to plot, and . . . a pile of fabric to play with.

Where do stories come from?

This is an interesting question, one that I have been pondering for several months.  Now, at 3:00 a.m., God decided to answer this question, and I’m wide awake writing.  Apparently, inspiration comes at the most inopportune times, like when I need sleep.  On a more serious note, this is a cultural question as much as an individual question.  This past weekend, I watched Elizabeth Gilbert\’s Ted Talk on CreativityIt’s fascinating, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in the sources of their own creative process to watch it.  She discusses the Ancient Greeks view of creative inspiration as they relied on muses.  Creative Greeks believed that they were merely conduits to a message or artistic inspiration which they then relayed.  Even Homer opens The Odyssey with the lines, “Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles.”  He then relates Odysseus’ story through his poetry.  Homer takes no credit whatsoever for an epic poem that has survived some 3000 years – that’s impressive.

The idea of muses, or divine inspiration, still pervades American culture; it just has different names and forms.  For example, the lovely idea of muses has morphed into “THE LAW OF ATTRACTION” – if we put out our request for a great idea for a novel out there to the universe, the universe will provide states this law.  I think I like the idea of having a muse better than following “the law,” but to answer my original question, I do believe inspiration comes from both my muses and my continual pondering of ideas.  The challenge then, is to actually have the courage to trust our muses, act on the inspiration, and not disregard great ideas as idle daydreams. Ralph Waldo Emerson put this succinctly when he wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.  Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connexion of events.  Great men have always done so and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age.”  I need to trust in that creative spark and NOT conform to society’s expectations of me, but embrace an act on those creative impulses.  That is the gist of his essay “Self Reliance.”  To be great, we must live up to our individual potential and reject the parameters society has put on us.  However, divine inspiration does not mean that there is no work involved in creating; I’ve learned it’s often painful and difficult.

So what does this look like in my life?  Where do ideas come from?  They come from everywhere.  Our muses will answer if we ask.  This sounds awfully Law of Attraction-y, (and even a little on the woo-woo side), but I think that anyone who is the least bit creative will understand what I’m talking about.  Let me give an example to clarify.  This weekend, I felt compelled to watch a Ted Talk, and the first one I watched had to do with the question of creativity, which I’ve been pondering. When I woke up this morning at 2:30 am, I thought of Emerson’s essay, “Self Reliance.”  For whatever reason, I still have my giant anthology of American lit from college.  I probably haven’t opened that book since 1991, but there was one bookmark in it  . . . marking the essay “Self-Reliance.”  And, the quote I put above, was highlighted on the bookmarked page.  Call it serendipity, coincidence, inspiration, muses, luck, work . . . whatever, but I do believe that all the little pieces coincide to make a whole.  I clearly got the message over the past few days that my muses or God or Angels or the Universe (whatever you choose to call it) will give me what I need when I need it.  I just need to LOOK for those pieces both within and without, trust in them, and act on them.  That’s the part that is so difficult and sometimes painful.  For example, I like what I’ve written here, but I’ve been awake since 2:30 am and now I have to go get in the shower and get ready to teach all day.  It’s going to be a great day! Yes . . . it is!!