Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Barro Syde!

by Josh

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.” Cotton 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 Conanstory (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…”


Sophie Littlefield said...

wow, you sound like you were a fascinating kid, and the fact that you came up with a character name like "Barro Syde" way back then says legions about you! Just look at all the thriller writers out there who have reached adulthood and still can't come up with anything better than Jake Stone or that ilk. And that finger....please tell me that's going to make it into a story some day....

(PS after reading prayer for owen meany, i just *had* to write my own severed fingers story. it took me a few years, but I finally did...and then it took several more years to find someone who wanted to publish it, but i finally did)

Joshua Corin said...

Sophie, there were many, many stories that circulated about Mr. Worrell's missing finger and how he lost it. Some claimed a lion bit it off. Some claimed he lost it in a war. I almost don't want to know the truth.

Hm...maybe there should be a section in bookstores entitled Severed Fingers...and oh the paper cut ironies which would follow...

Sophie Littlefield said...

actually i think it's an anthology waiting to happen. with me and you as editors, and a foreward by mr. worrell. how's your calendar in...say...2012? that'll give the other CMs time to write their contributions

SEVERED FINGERS: A Compendium of Tales of Digits Lost

Shane Gericke said...

Fascinating post. I love that name, Barro Syde. You've got to use that in a book someday.

Does the cerebral palsy still force you to pound the keyboard? Or are you able to use a lighter touch because of the computer technology?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I was forced to memorize the preamble to the Constitution by a History teacher named Mr. White who had an identical twin who used to pick him up after school. They looked (what a surprise) completely identical and led to a story about teachers cloning themselves that was mercifully never published.

I want to read the vampire with a loose tooth story. That sounds like a classic.

Your post made me laugh out loud here in my Hawaii Starbucks, BTW. Got disapproving looks from the three teenage girls at the next table who are supposed to be studying but who are actually (what a surprise) talking about guys.

Count me in on the severed fingers antho! I'm sure I'll have some spare time in 2012.

Joshua Corin said...

Sophie, I am SO in for the anthology. Just imagine some of the story titles we could come up with...

"Five Finger Discount"
"Do You Bite My Thumb, Sir?"
"He Gave Me the Middle Finger"

Joshua Corin said...

But Shane, I *did* already use it in a book =)

I am still far from being a quiet typist, although at this point I've no idea if it's due to my infirmities or just force of habit. Very forceful, that habit.

Joshua Corin said...

Becky, I like your idea about teacher cloning. From a college professor's point of view, I can tell you that it would definitely lessen my stress level if there was a different one of me for each of my classes. Plus, I'd finally have people in my dept. with whom I would agree!

The vampire's name, by the way, was Vinny. Vinny the Vampire.

Karen Harrington said...

There must be at least one very influential teacher in the life of every writer. I enjoyed reading this...much as you predicted on Facebook.

Gabi said...

Can you still recite them all the way through?

Joshua Corin said...

Thank you, Karen. I agree - we all have been influenced by some very good (and some very bad) teachers. I know that I owe my keen grammatical skills to Mr. Worrell and his intimidating nature.

Joshua Corin said...

Gabi, I can still recite the Preamble without a problem, and the first verse of "The Walrus & The Carpenter" remains ingrained somewhere in my brain, but I've mercifully forgotten all but the first four lines of the Longfellow dirge.

Kelli Stanley said...

Loved the post, Josh, and got all misty eyed for your IBM. :)

We had to memorize the preamble in 8th grade social science. I actually liked memorizing poetry (and can still recite most of You are Old, Father William, so you and I need to go on the road with a Lewis Carroll act). :)

Barro Syde ... I'm seeing a kind of cool crime super hero here!!



Shane Gericke said...

You guys got to memorize cool stuff in grade school. I had to memorize 103 prepositional phrases. Didn't know there WERE 103 such phrases, but yep, right there in sixth grade, had to memorize all of them. And none of that multiple-choice tests for it. We had to take pencil and paper and write down, from memory ... 103 prepositional ... phrases. I passed, but to this day don't remember a damn one of 'em. And our friend Google says there's really a jillion of them, these were just some sadistic teacher's pet list. Sigh. I'd rather have had the village smithy.