I say that not to garner sympathy but to declare access to eras forgotten or unknown to most. Here I sit in this year’s annual writers’ conference auditorium, packed with emerging authors eager to gorge on pearls of wisdom tossed out by the floodlit elite. Faces within the audience are mostly young, fresh-faced and optimistic. I close my eyes while we await the tardy guest speakers to take to the stage and I remember my early foray into writing. For a moment, I am taken back, way back, to a faded memory from my tender teens.
It is the early 70’s and the classroom is dark but for a narrow run of windows below the ceiling along one wall. The desks aligned in four rows facing an expansive blackboard.
“Backs straight, eyes down toward your copy, do NOT look at the keys.” Ms V would pace the aisles in a militant fashion, whistle in her right hand and inspecting each student’s posture. I placed my two index fingers on the F and the J, anchored my pinkies on the A and the semi-colon and measured the distance between the row of keys above and below. I began to press down on the keys to gauge their resistance and watched the lettered hammer lift from its rested arc and fly toward the page and inked ribbon. I could smell Ms V walking up behind me. Her pungent odour, shabby clothes, short-tubby stature, ruddy-red face and greasy-orange hair would have provided ample material for ridicule by insensitive students, but Ms V would have none of that. Her permanent scowl and booming East-European voice would tolerate no insubordination.
“Feet together, flat on the floor,” she said in a softer tone; her hand rested on my shoulder. I was treated more leniently than other classmates, probably because I was one of only two boys taking the typing elective. A choice that spoke naught of my questionable masculinity. Both of us turned out to be gay but the other one couldn’t type. Ms V was harsher on the girls who she imagined aspired of careers in unforgiving typing pools in sleek modern offices – a service in rapid decline since the 60’s due to the rise of the photocopy machine which meant multiple copies of documents were not required to be typed individually. I had no such aspirations. I wanted to tell stories and the tool to master at that time was the typewriter, and master it I would.
The whistle blew and the sound of ten digits from thirty students tapping away at the keys filled the room along with the intermittent dings as typists approached the end of a line followed by the whir of a carriage return. Speed and accuracy were necessary for good grades, but extra marks could be gleaned for presentation. Strike the key too softly and the imprint on the page would become faded, strike too heavily and you may puncture the paper. The hand had to hover above the keys and the fingers demanded a vertical path downward for fear of clipping another letter that would result in both hammers becoming jammed on the journey toward the ribbon. The copy to transcribe was long and the fear of error ever present. Students were regularly humiliated when Ms V would read aloud the text they had typed verbatim. There was no backspace option here; even liquid paper was a decade away. One too many errors meant starting afresh. On I typed, each letter punched onto the page with force, fingers contorting and pounding the keys. It was a relief to hear the two short bursts of Ms V’s whistle to cease typing. Woe betides any whose fingers tapped another key after the whistle was blown. I pulled the paper from the machine; the roller making a series of clicking sounds as it relinquished the text to be graded.
Producing content was a very tactile experience back then, but it often rendered the typist with painful fingers after a long stretch of typing. I wondered whether my hands were up to the task to become a writer; if it was a vocation that favoured a genetic trait predisposed to digital endurance and dexterity. My only other relative to have written an autobiography was my third cousin thrice removed, a tenuous connection for sure, but given the striking resemblance of our famous painter kinsman to many within the family tree (myself included), our genes would not have been too dissimilar. Would he have had the stamina to hunch over a typewriter and tap out his memoir – The Life of a Painter? Lavery was 83 when his book was released in 1939, just two years before his death. I imagined a dutiful scribe listening to his Glaswegian voice above the incessant sound of the tapping typewriter, but then again, a life of painting may have endowed him with the strength to tell his tale using his own acquired abilities.
In Lavery’s book, he tells of a kinship among painters – ‘The Glasgow Boys’ their given title. And here I sit among my peers of fellow writers, each with a portfolio of their own with no such label to bind us. Each touting manuscripts of 70-80 thousand words, created by a plethora of tools far more forgiving than the humble typewriter. Please do not misunderstand – I do not begrudge the use of such tools. I am the first to extol the virtues of Scrivener, Vellum, InDesign, Autocrit and such like and I have mastered them just as proficiently as I did the typewriter. Their existence has made writing accessible to anyone and everyone, and create they have. Content today is abundantly produced, bombarding us for attention from every direction. My bedside table is a testament to such demands as three bookmarks poke out from books in various stages of completion. Billboard memes, magazines, pamphlets, email Inboxes, newsfeeds, blogs all vying for their words to enter the mind of the reader, resulting in us feeling constantly drowned by text. I have submerged in defeat and I’m drifting down into a watery trench. The weight of the world’s words pressing down upon me. True, some words serve to inspire and delight, they lift us up and we treasure those moments of revelation, but an equal quantity of text can become drudgery as we wearily plough through pathetic prose and mindless drivel.
I sit in the auditorium listening to publishers lament the few hours in the day they have to read countless mounds of manuscripts – how we should not darken their doorsteps unless invited to do so. And I feel for them, I really do. I sit listening to the need to hear from minority-based authors while being vilified for being an old white Anglo male whose contribution is no longer favoured. I understand that my words within the authoring clan are relegated to the bottom of a slush pile purely for being a member of a demographic. I acknowledge that I must succeed to diverse voices with more pressing tales. There is merit in the claim for sure but what then of my voice? What is to become of the tales I wish to tell? Am I to be silenced? To be forgotten assumes one was once known, but by all accounts, such a privilege seemed remote.
With little likelihood of publication, I set my sights on the self-publishing path but with 48.5 Million books in Amazon’s catalogue alone, the prospect of finding readers is bleak at best. I return home and collapse on my bed in despair. I close my eyes and long for all thoughts to be silenced. But my imagination will not comply and before me stands my protagonist silhouetted against a sunrise. He studies me intently. We have never uttered each other’s name, for I do not fully inhabit his world, nor does he mine. His laconic smile is accompanied by a nod acknowledging my presence.
“Where to today?” he asks.
I take stock of where I had left him. A mental scan of yesterday’s events has me out of bed and booting up the laptop. We are both transported back to the night scene. The street lights illuminate one by one as I login to my Mac. The cast of extras assumes their positions. Cue rain, cue props. Scrivener opens, I locate the scene and begin to type. A last nod from my protagonist and the action begins.
I realise now why I do this. These worlds, these words sustain me. I may have drowned in a sea of content but the words I write are my words. Even if they are read by me alone, they have already served their purpose. It matters not whether I am awarded a publisher’s approval, whether the readers ever come or even if the words themselves are any good. I am suspended by their creation and they surround me in warmth. I now know their purpose and realise THIS is why I write.