Tools of the trade
A few months ago, I was standing at the till of the Office Supply Co. on Spring Street in Jeffersonville. When I was eight years old, an aspiring novelist, that shop was a place of magic and mystery, the purveyor of the tools of my craft. In 1978 Southern Indiana, I would have been allowed to ride my bike that far, but the route required me to use the dangerous Utica Pike, so my mother drove me there to buy my near-transparent onionskin typewriting paper, which was sold in forest-green boxes with silhouettes of pine trees on it. It also stocked the ribbons for my Smith-Corona Silent Super, which I’d inherited from my father, who’d used it in medical school in the 1960s. The Silent Super has ardent fans, such as “Tony”, clearly a typewriter enthusiast. He celebrated his recent acquisition from the Salvation Army Thrift Shop 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 soft-yet-rough feel on 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 Jeffersonville Office Supply Co., nearly three decades on, that’s what I was poised to do too.
How can I convey to you the totality of joy and the bizarreness that is the Office Supply Co.? It is a time capsule, right down to the tiles on the floor – the same as in my parents’ basement. It smells the same. About half the stock looks the same. I had only gone there to pick up a few pens and pencils for stocking stuffers, for my daughter and her cousins, but now my heart was 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 that 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 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 some ribbons. “Any particular color?” he asked. I was astonished, and excited.
I can understand why that typewriter felt particularly important to me at that point in time, Christmas of 2017. A few months prior, in August, I had taken an unpaid career break from my academic post, knowing that I would never have time to write a book like All the Ghosts in the Machine while running a doctorate in counselling psychology. I got an agent and a contract straight off the bat. 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, overworked existence for the flexible, time-rich life of a writer and private practitioner sounded amazing, but it was far more difficult than I had expected. The good days were really good – I could hit a kind of creativity flow channel at 9 a.m. and ride its waves all the way to 8000 good words by 5 p.m. But those high days could be followed by 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 December, I was starting to doubt whether I was going to make it. As an experienced writer with a journalism degree, who’d produced multiple journal articles, chapters, and even a recently published solo-authored book, I thought I’d be flying. I’d studied this subject for over a decade and thought I was ready to go. But I was feeling stuck, having too many unproductive days. What if I wasn’t cut out for this?
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 off the yellow school bus that stopped in front of my house and sit at my window overlooking the Ohio River until dinnertime, scrolling sheet after sheet into my typewriter. For longer projects like novels, I wrote in longhand first, on ruled sheets of paper bound together with knitting yarn, and then typed them up on the Smith Corona. Letters to people and shorter pieces went straight to type.
That typewriter was my talisman. I would refuel it with fresh ink, take it back with me to London. My self-doubt would evaporate, my confidence return.
My sister was ahead of me in line, and ringing up her order was a time-consuming process, since it was entirely manual. 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 an iPhone felt like a bit of a slap in the face to a shop owner who was still trying to shift his stock of coil telephone cords, but I tried to be discreet by ducking behind a stack of shelves. “Oh, we don’t have that anymore,” my father said. “I think 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. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “You got rid of that typewriter?” I stammered. 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 a bit scared. Dumbo had needed a magic feather to be able to fly. Now I was convinced I needed my magic Smith-Corona to be able to write. I was screwed.
But I wasn’t screwed, of course. I returned to London without a typewriter in tow, but I managed to find something that had survived – a stack of childhood writings produced with the Smith-Corona. I decided to take them along to the producers of a stage show called Mortified– you can see it on Netflix – and 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 Bernard, could help me distil them into a 15-minute spoken-word piece. In March, I performed that piece at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. After all that – although the writing doesn’t flow every day – the process has become a hell of a lot better.
The latter part of this sequence of events helped me remember some things. Number one, I was always a writer. I could always produce good work, work that I could be proud of and that others could appreciate. I’m still that person. Number two, I can’t just free-write thousands of words and go back to edit them later, as much as I might want to. I always painstakingly refine as I go along, so that the last version is nearly indistinguishable from the first. I don’t do drafts. I’d been criticising myself for that, but I realised it was ever thus, for my childhood writings have virtually no cross-outs, no edits, no struck-through paragraphs. So I’ve decided that it’s fine to stay with what works for me. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Number three, the typewriter may be gone. But the appreciation from the audience at Leicester Square reminded me that it’s what I didwith the typewriter that counts. It’s not the tools that are responsible for my work. It’s me. And I can do this.
And finally – to paraphrase the motto of Mortified – yes, I am a freak. And yes, I am fragile - some days more than others. And yet I continue to survive.