The Real Tools of the Trade
About to start a new year, and in many ways a new life, I should have been over the moon. I’d acquired a book contract far more swiftly than I’d imagined was possible, and I’d managed to arrange a newly flexible schedule in which I could write to my heart’s content.
But my heart was feeling far from content. For a couple of months, I’d been the miserable searcher in an interminable game of hide-and-seek with my creative muse. Everyone else had colds and flu that winter, but I was suffering from something far nastier: a full-blown case of imposter syndrome. I’d sold the publisher a bill of goods, pulled the wool over my agent’s eyes. I couldn’t do this.
Utterly dejected, and not feeling the Christmas spirit at all, I asked my sister to meet me at a cafe on the main street of our home town so that we could have a chat and do some shopping afterward. After some tea and sympathy, which made me feel warmer but not entirely reassured, she and I wandered across the street to the office supply store, intent on getting some stocking stuffers for our young daughters.
When I was eight years old, a tiny aspiring novelist, this shop was a place of magic and mystery, the purveyor of the tools of my craft. In 1978, my mother would drive me there to buy my near-transparent onionskin typewriting paper, which was sold in forest-green boxes with silhouettes of pine trees on them. It also stocked the ribbons for my Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter, which had seen my father through medical school in the 1960s.
The Silent Super has ardent fans, such as Tony, clearly a typewriter enthusiast. When he found one at a Salvation Army Thrift Shop, he celebrated his new acquisition by posting about it on his blog, lovingly describing it as:
‘…among the smoothest-functioning and quirk-free machines in my growing collection … The color is attractive, as is the fine sandy texture. And it retains the vestigial art deco Smith Corona stripes.’
Reading that passage, I can almost feel its surface again, soft yet rough under my fingertips. In his post, Tony includes detailed photos of the system that anchored it in the beige carrying case, and I get a shock of memory at one particular image. I vividly remember maneuvering that little lever to release the machine from its protective box. ‘[A]ll I’ve done is replace the ribbon,’ Tony says.
In the Office Supply Co., nearly three decades on, I suddenly decided that that’s exactly what I had to do.
How can I convey to you the joy that is the Office Supply Co.? It’s a time capsule, right down to the tiles on the floor — probably asbestos — which are the same as in my parents’ basement. It smells the same as it ever did. About half the stock looks identical to what I remember it being in 1978.
Having only entered this shop on a mundane little pre-holiday errand, my heart was now fluttering, and I felt slightly tipsy with nostalgia. I didn’t just want pens and pencils anymore. I wanted a typewriter ribbon. But could they still have one that would fit my own Smith-Corona Silent Super? Looking at the coil telephone cords, ‘Softalk’ chin rests, and Rolodex cards on the shelves, I reckoned that it was just about possible they would.
I found the owner, who was sitting at the back, underneath an American flag and just to the left of a poster depicting a bikini-clad Jaime Pressly from the TV show My Name is Earl. He was wearing a bolero tie. I described the typewriter in question, and it took him about 2.5 seconds to find what I sought.
‘Any particular colour?’ he asked.
Not only could I get a typewriter ribbon, but I had a choice!
I was beside myself with excitement.
I can fully understand why that typewriter felt particularly important to me at that point in time. Quitting my academic post to write a book had been a huge leap, one which I’d had to take because I knew I’d never find the time to complete this project while working that job. When I got an agent and a contract straight off the bat, my head had spun with how quickly my dreams were being realised. It must be meant to be!
I was in for a surprise, though, those first few months. Swapping a structured, driven, hectic existence for the flexible, time-rich life of a writer and self-employed psychotherapist sounded amazing, but it was far more difficult than I’d expected. The good days were really good — I could hit a kind of creativity flow channel in the morning and ride its waves all the way to 8000 good words by the evening. But those occasional high days could be followed by many low ones, where my mind stubbornly refused to produce anything at all. The pain of it was physical, sustained, like a childbirth that is dragging on so long that you don’t know if you’re going to make it. By that December, I was starting to doubt whether I was going to make it — as a writer, that is.
It’s not that I didn't have experience. I had a journalism degree, and I’d produced multiple journal articles, chapters, and even a recently-published solo-authored book for practitioners. I’d studied the subject of the book for over a decade. I’d assumed that I’d fly through this manuscript, my fingers struggling mightily to keep up with my brain. So why so many unproductive days? What if I wasn’t cut out for this? But now…now I had an answer.
What I needed was my typewriter.
That typewriter, more than any other object, recalled the carefree, unselfconscious generativity of my childhood self. Inspiration and creativity, the fickle muses of my adult life, had been my constant companions then. Every day, for weeks at a time, I would bounce out of the yellow school bus that stopped in front of my house and sit at my window that overlooked the Ohio River. I’d be there until dinnertime, scrolling sheet after sheet into the typewriter. For longer projects, like novels, I wrote in longhand first, on ruled sheets of paper bound together with knitting yarn. Then I’d type them up on the Smith-Corona. Letters to people and shorter pieces went straight to type.
The Silent Super would be my talisman, the answer to all of my current creative woes. I would refuel it with fresh ink and take it back with me to London, where my self-doubt would evaporate, my confidence would return, and this book would get written. I didn’t intend to write the book on the typewriter. It would be enough to have it on the desk next to my computer. I would touch its rough-smooth surface, and the confidence and inspiration of my youth would flow through my fingers and straight to my brain.
My sister was ahead of me in line, and as it was entirely manual, ringing up her order was a drawn-out process. The owner was taking his time, writing out her receipt item by item on a carbon-paper-backed pad. That gave me time to ring my father to ask where the typewriter was, for it was nearly Christmas, and I didn’t want to get embroiled in hours of searching for it. Using a smartphone might be disrespectful to a shop owner who was still trying to shift his stock of coil telephone cords, I thought, so I discreetly ducked behind a display of slowly coagulating vintage White-Out.
‘Oh,’ said my father breezily. ‘I don’t think we have that anymore. We threw it away, or got rid of it in a yard sale.’
I’ve had my moments of being overly dramatic, and I’ve been known to go into histrionics on occasion, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you now that I felt like every ounce of blood was draining from my body. My fluttery, tipsy nostalgia high transformed instantly into a hungover, nauseous crash.
‘You…you got rid of my typewriter?’ I stammered.
He assured me that they had, sounding nowhere near as apologetic as I thought he should.
I rang off, mutely handed the ribbon back to the man in the bolero tie, bought my pens and pencils and left the shop in a mixed state of anger, sadness and disbelief. How could my parents not have known how important that typewriter was?
Before my book contract, I would have just been hurt, but now I was also scared. Dumbo had needed a magic feather to be able to fly. Now I was convinced that I needed my magic Smith-Corona to be able to write.
I was doomed.
Except…I wasn’t really doomed, of course. I might have returned to London without a typewriter in tow, but then I managed to find something that had survived: a stack of childhood writings produced with the lost Smith-Corona. Early in 2018, I decided to take them along to the producers of a stage show called Mortified — you can see it on Netflix. To my delight, they were keen to work with me. To bring my writing to the stage, I had to transcribe hundreds — yes, hundreds — of pages into Google Docs so that my lovely producer, Marcus, could help me distill them into a 15-minute spoken-word piece. In March, I performed that piece on stage in London.
Then something strange happened. Although the writing still didn’t flow every day, the writing process — with all of its stops and starts — suddenly began to feel a heck of a lot better. I was far more at ease. But why?
Well, the latter part of this sequence of events — the childhood writings, the performance — helped me realise a few things. Making contact with these truths helped me more than any writing implement ever could. The following three mini-epiphanies were key in getting me to the finishing line of my manuscript, and I’m now at the point where I can just about see my publication date, just over the horizon.
Truth One: The writing spirit is in me. Even as a fourth grader, I could produce good work, work that I could be proud of and that others could appreciate. And I am still that person.
Truth Two: The way that I write is fine. Writing my book, I found myself painstakingly refining as I went along so that the last versions of chapters were nearly indistinguishable from the first drafts. Each sentence had to be perfected before the next one could be unlocked, it seemed. Whenever the sentence wouldn’t come, and I was in the creative doldrums, everybody told me to free write, and my inability to do so drove me mad. How desperately I wanted to rocket along for set periods of time without regard for content or grammar or spelling, just to break the tedium, to produce something. But I couldn’t.
But then I noticed that my childhood writings had virtually no cross-outs, no edits, no struck-through paragraphs, and I realised that it was ever thus. I should stop trying to change, to have a different writing process than that which came naturally for me. Yes, it was painful. Yes, I could sit for literally hours with my fingers frozen over the keyboard, a feeling in my gut like there was an alien baby in it struggling and failing to burst through. But eventually, the writing would come. It always had, even when it took its time. I wasn’t broken, and I didn’t need to fix myself. I needed to go with my own flow.
Truth Three: Particular tools may help my writing, but they are not responsible for it. Yes, my typewriter was gone. But when the audience in London’s Leicester Square Theatre heard my work, four decades on from when it was written, they whooped and hollered, laughed and applauded. It’s what I did with the typewriter that counted and that endured. It was not the tool that was responsible for my work. It was me.
And, finally realising all this to be true, I knew something else to be the case.
I could do this.
Postscript: The book that I managed to write — without the aid of my Smith-Corona Silent Super — is All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. Publication date is 25 April 2019.