Actually, I wrote my first novel on a typewriter.
I was in the fifth grade. My instructor was a Dickensian figure named Mr. Worrell. Mr. Worrell had nine-and-a-half fingers and loved to point the half finger – a middle finger, natch – directly at his students. The wound had closed up long ago into the approximation of an X and when this fleshy X was pointed directly at you, you damn well better have had the answer to the question he was asking. Answering these questions, by the way, involved standing up, locking your hands behind your back, maintaining a proper posture, and replying in a clear and confident voice.
He made us memorize Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith.” He made us memorize “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” He made us memorize the Preamble to the US Constitution. He drilled into our prepubescent brains every rule of grammar we might ever need to know. He was, as they say, old school. Very old school. Cotton Mather old school.
Don’t believe me? Think I’ve plucked him from a vine? Ask Michelle Gagnon. She had him for an instructor as well (although not in the same year as I).
It was in Mr. Worrel'l’s fifth grade class that I wrote my first novel. We were all required to write a novel (of approximately 10 pages or so) for the statewide Young Authors competition. The honors kids, those in ALAP (Advanced Learning Achievement Program), took to the assignment like flies to honey. I’d always wanted to be in ALAP, but because of my mild cerebral palsy, various teachers and administrators deemed me a poor fit for ALAP’s showcased opportunities. So, going into the contest, did I feel a little competitiveness with them? You bet I did.
I wrote a choose-your-own-adventure story about a space whale, a sort of interstellar Moby Dick. In 10 pages. With hand-drawn illustrations. And a cover made of blue-and-white wallpaper. Because my father sold typewriters for a living, I had easy access to the latest IBM machines and I remember folding sheets of pulpy manila paper in half, feeding these half sheets into an IBM Quietwriter, and typing out my imaginings for this novel. Since I’d been more or less typing since I was six years-old, I knew my way around a keyboard and could hunt-and-peck with speed and accuracy.
Writing that novel dropped me down a rabbit hole from which I’ve yet to emerge.
The novel (whose title, alas, eludes me but probably was something revolutionary like “The Space Whale”) did not win the contest, but I was far from discouraged. You see, although this wasn’t my first story (that would be a short I wrote in second grade about a vampire with a loose tooth), this was the first time I remember feeling the magic of storytelling. When, the following year, it came time again for the Young Authors contest, I typed up a fantasy novel (12 pages) about a Conan-like hero named Barro Syde.
And I won, beating out every other student , including all those perfect little ALAPers.
(On a side note, one of the judges of the contest the year I won was thriller writer and all-around mensch Jon Land. A few weeks after I learned of my victory, the state held a reception for all the winners and finalists and I actually got to meet Jon and…well, no, that’s a story for another time.)
All through junior high school, I used that Quietwriter to type up adventure stories and horror stories. This was reflective of what I was reading at the time. I’d type and I’d type – and not softly either. In part because of physical necessity and in part because my fingers were as passionate as my brain and heart, I pounded at those typewriter keys and oftentimes I’d get a knock on the door to keep it down, but that was like telling a fish to dance. I did do my best to accommodate my siblings and my parents, and when we finally got an IBM home computer, I made sure to isolate my writing time to the wee hours of the morning, so as not to disturb their sleep.
Do I miss typewriters? Well, there’s a difference between nostalgia and longing. I’m very happy with the technology we writers have today. Plus, stand up if you ever got a hand stuck in a typewriter carriage whilst trying to change the ribbon.
Oh, and now that you’re standing, please lock your hands behind your back and recite with me:
“Under a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands…”