Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tale of a Duck

By Michael

I have a friend who requires students in her creative writing classes to purchase manual typewriters. The students look at her as if she’s crazy, but they dutifully buy the old machines on Craigslist or find them in their grandparents’ attics. Then they learn to pause and commit to a word before putting it on paper. And they learn to use muscle – if only finger muscle – when hitting the keys. No deleting. No cutting and pasting. No easy editing. If they want to make changes, they can pull out their bottles of liquid paper and sniff the chemical sweetness of the stuff as they apply it. Or they can tear sheets of paper from the typewriters, ball them up, throw them in a trashcan, and scroll new clean sheets in and start over.

I admire my friend for turning her students on to older technologies, ones that required us to be more careful and maybe more thoughtful.

I need to add, though, that she teaches poetry. A typewriter is great for a haiku. Great for a sonnet. Great even for a short ode. Edgar Allan Poe argues in his essay on “The Poetic Principle” that “a long poem does not exist . . . . [T]he phrase, ‘a long poem,’ is simply a flat contradiction in terms.” A typewriter is great for a short poem.

But a novel? Not if I can help it. I used to write on a typewriter. (I didn’t switch to a computer until after I graduated from college and did so then only reluctantly, valuing still the muscular commitment of the typewriter.) But I also used to write only short stories. I’m a heavy and frequent reviser, as well as a slow typist, and the idea of wearing my fingers to the bone on a typewriter is . . . painful – though maybe I wouldn’t wear them to the bone; maybe I would develop Arnold Schwarzenegger fingers, with biceps on my pinkies and triceps on my thumbs. Either way, the idea displeases me.

If forced to go back to a typewriter, I suppose that I would revert to writing short stories. Often my children ask for what they call “domino stories”: stories that ramble on and on with many little exciting events, like lines of dominoes tumbling forward. Usually I’m happy to oblige. But on occasion, time and energy mean that I just can't bring myself to make up a long story.

That’s when I revert to my “Tale of a Duck.” It has many of the elements of a good thriller for pre-teens: a beginning, a middle, and an end; rising action, a bit of suspense, and then a blow-out conclusion. And it’s short. In its entirety it goes as follows: “Once upon a time, there was an exploding duck. BOOM! The end.” It’s little more than a prose haiku. I would be happy to write it on a typewriter.


J.Lightle said...

I agree that the ease of use computers provide can make those who write on typewriters seem pretentious with overly romantic ideals of writing. Especially if one were ever seen lugging around even the lightest portable typewriter to the nearest wherever-writers-write-in-public.

That being said, I have an IBM Selectric II staring at me from a shelf and I have no intentions for us to ever part ways. I would use it more, were it not for the anxiety of running out of the quickly depleting global cache of ribbon (I fear this more than the depletion of fossil fuels). Sure, still lists they have ribbon for sale. But, like every other item with a superior digital counterpart, typewriter ribbon will soon disappear or become so expensive that considering it is pointless.

I have a few unopened boxes of ribbon that probably dried to a brittle unusable state long ago, but my courage to reveal the truth fails and fear forces me to leave them unopened.

As strong as that fear pushes, technophobia pushes even harder and I wonder continually whether I'll finish the next line and be able to save before electronic gremlins steal my words. Looks like I made it through that last line, and it looks good that I'll make it through this one. But I've lost chapters and short stories and love letters and, well, lots of stuff I can't remember but I'm sure it was all better than anything so far published - A-Hem. Talk about romantic ideals!

What I've considered doing is printing at the end of a writing session so that I have something organically tangible that soothes my tactile-obsession. But have you guys priced ink cartridges lately? GEEZE!

So, I guess I'll just keep emailing everything I write to the 7 different email accounts I opened just to back-up pointless drivel I type.

Sophie Littlefield said...

the best thing about writing using a computer is the ability to do a nearly brain-to-page blast of thought, which to me is the best way to do a first draft. i've done longhand (i have tried everything in an effort to write a better story) and while it is more considered, whole tangents are lost and the writing comes out - in my view - a little precious.

i do have a little episode in my dystopic novel where a guy has braved the zombies to raid an ancient collection of ribbons for his manual typewriter, so he can write memoirs no one will read.

J.Lightle said...

@Sophie Littlefield: That sounds hilarious! Is it published or upcoming?

Michael Wiley said...

Great thoughts, Jason. Your print-it-out solution is the one that I generally use -- cost of ink cartridge be damned. But I also back up everything electronically (even though I know that software evolution will make everything I've saved unreadable in five or seven years).

Michael Wiley said...

I'll have to read the dystopic zombie novel, Sophie. The moment you describe sounds like Borges meeting Road Warrior. Just my kind of thing.

My own old Corona electric gave up the ghost about ten years ago. I sometimes think that I should replace it.

Mike Dennis said...

Michael--interesting story of your friend's classroom activities regarding old typewriters. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say she was turning her students "on" to the old technology, though.

Michael Wiley said...

A point well taken, Mike. (The smart ass in me wants to play on the "turn on" reference, but for that we can look at the photo at the top of Shane's post yesterday.) Still, though, the experience of writing college essays is very different for many of my students from what it was for me. The idea of making a correction in ink after printing out a "final" copy seems very strange now -- but I can't imagine not doing so. Etc. So, without resorting to quill and ink, they do turn back the clock a bit (if not "turn on") and get a different feel for writing with a typewriter.

Shane Gericke said...

Fascinating post, Michael, about that creative writing teacher. Much as I dislike manual typewriters, making kids use them in their writing studies is probably an excellent idea. It's a way to learn the roots of writing, though carving stone tablets might be even more fun.

In college, I took an industrial printing course so I could see exactly how writing got produced for public consumption. One of the things the prof did was make everyone compose a story they wrote in lead type, then print it on an old letterpress.

It was great fun, picking those little lead letters out of the California job cases and forming them into words, sentences and paragraphs. Then hooking the finished "square" of lead type--don't drop or it'll take a zeelion hours to clean up the mess!!!--onto a press and seeing the finished product in ink. You get a deep appreciation for the entire writing craft that way.

Isn't it fun to make kids do stuff we don't want to do ourselves :-)

Shane Gericke said...

J, those Selectrics were too cool. Always liked them, and glad you kept yours.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Shane. William Blake developed his own engraving process (one that basically reversed some of the standard methods). After he wrote backwards into copper plates using acids and then printed his copies, he and his wife then hand colored everything. Which is to say, I'm glad that we have computers -- and I'm glad that he didn't have one.

J.Lightle said...

@Michael Wiley: The hardcover editions of the McSweeney's Rectangulars kind of remind me of W. Blake engravings. If you've seen them in person, you know what I'm talking about. They feel like engravings and are done right into the front cover, with no dust jacket included. It gives the books an old world feel and seems to suggest an indelible quality for the cover art, like it will remain with the book forever instead of being easily destroyed and discarded like dust jackets.

Michael Wiley said...

I haven't seen the McSweeney's Rectangulars hardcovers, but now I think I need to see them.

Gabi said...

Manual typewriter = haiku