The Red Typewriter: A Fairy Tale for Authors


Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was an honest, hardworking, humble young woman.  She had a decent job, enough to eat, and a clean place to live.  Her life was pleasant, but not all that exciting.

One day, while perusing the contents of a local garage sale, she came across an old typewriter.  It was a little dusty, but when cleaned off, it revealed itself to be a gleaming shade of scarlet, and it hardly showed any sign of wear.  The young woman fell in love with the feel of its keys beneath her fingers, the click it made when she pressed them, and the mildly musty perfume it emitted.  Her mind conjured images of lazy Sunday afternoons spent spinning yarns, a symphony of audible letters and words filling her apartment, of endless cups of tea and cozy sweaters.  What could be more rewarding than time spent crafting stories?

Of course she took the damn thing home with her. Isn’t that always the way with shiny new things that conjure bohemian fantasies like this? At first, she just played with it, typing out snippets of ideas here and there, enjoying how they looked when splattered on paper.  One day while working, she became a little bored with it, the novelty having worn off just a little bit, but she couldn’t seem to pull her fingers off the keys.  For a moment, she panicked, feeling like she was physically stuck to the thing, like her fingers couldn’t stop punching away, even when she wasn’t sure what she wanted to type anymore.  A good yank pulled her fingers free.

She didn’t touch the typewriter for a few days, fearing that the next time she used it, she’d truly be trapped by it.  She poked her head into the room a few times, admiring the shiny redness of the typewriter, catching little whiffs of the ink. Even from afar, with the terror of being stuck to it still fresh in her mind, it was still enticing.  The feel of putting letters and words together, banging them into a coherent whole as she clicked away, was intoxicating.  She missed it, and her regular everyday life seemed to pale in comparison to it.  This really wasn’t good.

Eventually, she gave in to its siren song, poured herself a strong cup of tea, and went back to typing.  Part of her wasn’t even surprised when her hands really did get stuck to the keys, when she couldn’t seem to stop them from moving from letter to letter at a frantic pace.  She typed for hours, days even, until her knuckles swelled, her hair hung in matted clumps, and her eyes could hardly stay open.  She knew she was pitiful, but she couldn’t help it.  The words just kept coming and she just kept typing.

The universe, in its infinite wisdom, (sort of) took pity on the poor creature and sent a magical fairy godmother to help her escape the enchantment under which she was slaving away. “All will be well” the fairy godmother said “if you simply chop off your hands…and stay the hell away from that infernal thing.  Seriously, what were you thinking, bringing it into your house?”

The young woman looked up from the typewriter, and her hands continued their frantic two-step over the keyboard.  She mulled the idea over in her head.  She’d have stumps, but at least she could go back to her old, simple life.  She’d have a little peace.  She’d…she’d be leaving all those ideas stuck in her hands.  Unacceptable. She hunched back over the typewriter, grunted, and told the fairy godmother to piss off. She had a deadline.

The fairy godmother sighed, her wand drooping by her side.  This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.  With the sound of clicking echoing in her ears as she left, she went home and fixed herself a good stiff drink.

Are Fiction Writers Just Chronic Oversharers?

hear no evil

I used to rap students on the knuckles for it (figuratively, of course)- the tendency to confuse an author’s fictional world with his or her private life.  Time and time again I’d hear how thoughtful and kind someone must be if they wrote about redemption and love.  Conversely, students would curse a writer whose stories presented a worldview that was bleak or pessimistic.  I’d gently remind them that it was a writer’s job to imagine new things, to be true to their characters even if they didn’t walk the same path as them, to follow a plot line to its logical conclusion even if it pained them to do so.  I spoke of famous children’s writers who couldn’t stand kids in real life, political revolutionaries whose uprising on paper starkly contrasted their own quiet existence, romance writers who preferred their own quaint love lives to the tumultuous ones of the characters they portrayed.  In my class, we respected the right of an author to not share every detail of their everyday reality in the pages of their books.

Here’s the part where I backpedal a little.  Since my teaching days, I’ve met a lot of writers, and done a whole lot of writing myself, and I can tell you, the walls between what a writer lives and what a writer writes are thinner than I thought. True, you can be a science fiction genius without actually travelling through time and space.  You can produce marvelous historical fiction without having lived through an event. I’d wager many young adult fiction writers haven’t been a young adult for quite a while.  But if you read carefully enough, beyond the superficial details of a story, you’ll see them there. You can’t write about the distant future without being curious and concerned about it.  You can’t capture what happened in the past without having an opinion about it.  If you write for young people, you need to wake up the snoring, dusty younger version of you for advice.  And all of this is okay.  A little injection of one’s own philosophy makes one’s writing genuine and authentic.

What’s surprising to me is that writers also like to dish about themselves in real life.  True, there are a few hermits still out there (J.D. Salinger, please stand up), but in this age of digital confessionals, most wordsmiths aren’t allowed to put anything on a bookstore shelf without at least making an appearance online.  Just like everyone else on the planet, they’re expected to share their own story.  People want to know a bit about the mind that came up with this or that, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of writers are happy to share.  All of this is okay too.  If it’s your job to tell stories, if it’s what you spend hours every day doing, it’s difficult to stop when the laptop is closed and the notebook is back on the shelf.

A little while ago, I heard author Wayson Choy speak at a conference, and he argued that we write because we think what we have to say is important, and based on what I’ve seen of writers, I have to agree.  We think it’s so important that we stay up all night finishing it, bug our friends to read it over for us, and we talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.  We send it out to strangers in the hope that they’ll think it’s important enough to publish it.  We tweet about it, blab about it on Facebook, and yes, even blog about it (ooosh, just got kind of meta in here).

In a way, writers are kind of like that stranger at the bus stop who, in the time it takes to wait for the uptown express, manages to describe their appendectomy in gory detail.  We’re the nervous person at a party who doesn’t know what else to say, and confesses that they never really learned to tell time properly. We’re the guys who belch out loud at the office and then realize there are people in earshot.  Writers can’t help ourselves. We have to blab or we’ll explode.  Thankfully, we make it our business to make our blabbing sound intelligent, to use interesting turns of phrases, and to organize it into manageable chunks.  Most of our real lives aren’t the stuff of action/adventure fiction, but we dress up our experiences and mindsets so that they’re a little more exciting.

To those who indulge us in our oversharing, maybe even enjoy it a little, thank you.  If any of my former students are reading this and you remember a lesson such as the ones mentioned above, well…um…er, did I ever tell you about…