Tuesday, July 24, 2012

An Ode to My Typewriter (with thanks to Nora Ephron)

My agent sold my novel. My novel will be published in a few weeks. So, what’s a girl to do? (Aside from obsess about: Amazon rankings, Library Thing reviews, GoodReads ratings, will The New York Times book section give me any love?, is it bad form to stalk Carolyn Kellogg?, why does one of my agent’s writers who has a book coming out on the same day as mine have 495,000 Google results while I only have 47,000?, why haven’t the Weinstein brothers already snatched up the film rights?, and, and, and …)

The answer: write another novel!

Actually, I’m already five chapters into my next novel. Five … typed … chapters. Yep, that’s right. TYPED! On a typewriter. A Smith Corona Coronet Electric, to be exact, in that signature mint/olive green of the 1960s.

Why, my writer friends have asked me, are you writing on a typewriter?

You see, I’m 45, and I started writing when I was 10, which means my writing life began on typewriters, the first one being a clunky manual in a big orange-ish case that belonged to my father in college. It was missing an “n,” requiring me to hand-write every single “n” into each of the mystery and/or teen romance novels I wrote until my next second-hand typewriter came along a few years later. I continued to write on typewriters into the early 1990s, when I was 22 and my grandma (who was toying with the idea of a desktop publishing business) gave me a massive, shades-of-HAL PC.

For more than 20 years, I pounded out stories on desktops and laptops around the world. But this January, when my soon-to-be-published novel was finally edited and off to the nebulous world of production at Random House, I found that my new novel – which had been clamoring for my attention for a while – did not want to emerge from my computer. It wanted a typewriter. This new book takes place between 1937 and 1975, and it informed me that a typewriter and only a typewriter could take me back to the pace and mindset of that time period.

So, in a manner not even imaginable during said time period, I hopped online and started shopping around. Google took me to Etsy, which I’d never used but which appealed to me solely for the cuteness of its name and the fact that it’s an outlet for so many individual craftspeople.

There were plenty of typewriters on the site, and I narrowed my selection down to two: one from avantgarage and one from cherryriver. As I corresponded with both – telling them how I intended to use the typewriter and asking their opinions on how well each of their items would meet my needs – I found cherryriver to be far more personable. I really wanted to buy a typewriter from her, but it turned out that the one she was selling was bigger than I wanted, while avantgarage’s was perfect, just as her response indicated:

This typewriter is small for an electric (15x13x6.5 in the case) and very comfortable to type on. Being electric the action is smooth and effortless and all systems seem to work well. You'll wish the keyboard on your laptop felt this nice. It would be a fine choice for your next novel and quite a bargain in the world of vintage typewriters.

It did seem nicely priced at $75. So I sent off my payment and then waited quite impatiently for the week it took my treasure to arrive. When it did, I could hardly contain my excitement, digging wildly through the foam peanuts to pull out a black case in near perfect condition. I opened it and there inside was my past and my future all in one darling little piece of machinery that looked as new today as it must have when it first came into the world in the 1960s.

I tested it. I sounded so … real. It felt so … real. I was a little scared of it. I set it up in my room, but it took a few days for me to get up the courage to actually start writing on it. And when I did, something happened that I’d forgotten all about. I typed three sentences. Then I pulled out that page and retyped those sentences, revising along the way before typing a few more. I then pulled out that page and retyped what I’d just written with a few more revisions and a new paragraph. On this went, until I had a full chapter and dozens of pieces of paper with fits and starts on them scattered on the floor around me.

But that chapter. It was solid. It was fully formed. I felt close to it, because I had felt my hands type every word, heard each letter as it touched down on the page. And still, I wondered: was I wasting my time (not to mention paper) reverting to this old-fashioned, lurching way of writing?

With this in the back of my mind, on I typed: chapters two, three, four and five. Every page continued to be its own reward. Each sentence, each paragraph, with its slightly imperfect letters and hand-written corrections, felt that it could belong only to me.

Then, in the wake of the death of the amazing Nora Ephron, I picked up my old copy of her collected essays and started reading. Yesterday I came to the end of the book, and to my surprise, in the last essay I discovered the following:

I learned to write an article a paragraph at a time … and I arrived at the kind of writing and revising I do, which is basically a kind of typing and retyping. I am a great believer in this technique for the simple reason that I type faster than the wind. What I generally do is to start an article and get as far as I can—sometimes no farther in than a sentence or two—before running out of steam, ripping the piece of paper from the typewriter and starting all over again. I type over and over until I have got the beginning of the piece to the point where I am happy with it. I then am ready to plunge into the body of the article itself. This plunge usually requires something known as a transition. I approach a transition by completely retyping the opening of the article leading up to it in the hope that the ferocious speed of my typing will somehow catapult me into the next section of the piece. This does not work—what in fact catapults me into the next section is a concrete thought about what the next section ought to be about—but until I have the thought the typing keeps me busy, and keeps me from feeling something known as blocked.

She goes on to say that for her 1,500-word essays for Esquire, she sometimes went through 300 to 400 pieces of typing paper, so often did I type and retype and catapult and recatapult myself, sometimes on each retyping moving not even a sentence farther from the spot I had reached the last time through. At the same time, though, I was polishing what I had already written …

And about this she declares: This is a kind of polishing that the word processor all but eliminates, which is why I don’t use one. Word processors make it possible for a writer to change the sentences that clearly need changing without having to retype the rest, but I believe that you can’t always tell whether a sentence needs work until it rises up in revolt against your fingers as you retype it.

Whether using a computer or a typewriter, I have always been a chronic reviser. I love love love the revision process. But as I returned to the typewriter I realized how lazy I had let myself become in regard to revision. Knowing I could just cut and paste my way through changes, I no longer wrote with care from the very start, since it was so easy to go back and fiddle around with the words on the screen at any given time.

On a typewriter, though, there is a different rhythm, a deeper relationship between the body and the machine, and I could feel the way my mind slowed, and more importantly, made choices. Yes, that’s it. When I write on a laptop, I don’t have to make choices. Anything can be erased or cut or pasted at any time. But with a typewriter that’s much more difficult, and so I write carefully, thoughtfully, respecting my abilities, trusting myself, and holding myself accountable to the words as they form on the page.

Over the years I have often been thankful to Nora Ephron for reminding me of something that’s important in life. Today I thank her for this. Nora, you will be greatly missed.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Upcoming events for The Map of Lost Memories

With the August 21 publication date of The Map of Lost Memories nearing, my publicist is setting up lots of great events. Following are the first confirmed readings, appearances, etc. I will post more details as soon as I have them.

September 9, 2012
Book launch at Curve Line Space - details to come
Los Angeles (Eagle Rock), CA

October 7, 2012 - 2 pm
Reading at Elliott Bay Book Company
Seattle, WA

October 13-14, 2012
WordStock - event details to come
Portland, OR