The Typewriter Will Sleep When The Job Is Done

He went home and wrote his book to the end. His hands were cramped and shaking by the end; finger tips stained with typewriter ink. But he felt the satisfaction of a hard job done well. It had been worth the sacrifice of an evening out with his friends.

The next day at work he realised that he’d made a mistake in the first act of the story and that its pacing would ultimately derail the whole narrative. He resolved to … resolve … the issue. He realised he’d been in trouble two words into that previous sentence and wondered vaguely when he’d started narrating his own life story.  The day passed, eventually, like a kidney stone. But that evening he was there at the typewriter, feeding it his time and blood and sweat and every last ounce of creative energy he could wring from his knackered flesh.

Done.

But then it occurred to him in the shower the next morning that he had been a blind fool to go back to the first person, a blind, stupid fool.  Sorry boys, gonna’ have to ‘ixnay on the five aside tonight – the muse is trembling in my bosom.  He didn’t notice the unresponsive … response… from his colleagues.

The next day he left work at the very second his contracted hours were up. No post-work drinks for me; I’ve a book to write.  And the next day he did the same. And the next, until it was done.

He was excited then, at the end, so he sat back and lit his cigar he said, ‘Martha, now, how about that…’ but before he could finish, he had a revelation – it’s not a third person narrative at all; it’s a dramatic monologue.  He went to bed with the dawn chorus for a power nap before work.

And so it carried on, through the changing seasons and almost as many drafts as demurred invitations: I’m sorry guys, another time, how about on the 6th,  not tonight; sorry my only and dearest brother, I can’t come to the wedding, I’ve got to re-edit the climax – it’s so close, but not quite right.

Over time the invitations dwindled then stopped completely as, one by one, his friends came to the realisation that they’d lost him to addiction, that cruel mistress. It would almost have been better if he’d had a mistress, even a cruel one. At least he would have left the house occasionally.

Eventually the invites stopped coming, but he’d long since stopped noticing them in any event.  The years went by, one draft following another – what have I been doing, it’s been right under my nose all this time – it’s an epic poem.

Obviously.

His weight plummeted – he was too busy to eat.  In time, his pallid skin hung loose from his cheekbones, and his once proud mane of hair first became straggly then started to come off in huge clumps. The drafts would come and go – here a witty take on the book-ended structure of Madame Bovary, there a playful homage to For Whom The Bell Tolls.  The hipster’s typewriter became an executive’s MacBook Pro, then a desktop PC because an artist’s tools need not be a statement.  And then back to the typewriter, the one true implement of the writer.

Finally, after decades of work it was finished. His masterpiece.  His baby.  NOW he felt the full satisfaction of a hard job done well.  He scrabbled in the dust for his phone, before remembering that it had died for the last time back in 2039 and he’d not had time to replace it. That was during his ‘second person phase’, which he remembered with the sort of wry disregard one normally reserves for an ingratiating but wildly destructive king charles spaniel.  He felt a dull ache in the long-disused lizard part of his brain and a twitch he’d not felt in all the years since he’d decided to rule out including a saucy scene in the book. Hey Martha, he called out, how about that sex? Silence.

He found her decomposed corpse in the kitchen.  She’d been there 15 years last May.

It all came crashing in at once: the nights out, the weddings, funerals, get-togethers, reunions, anniversaries, date nights; all abandoned to feed the insatiable appetite of the typewriter.  He felt bitterness then – the return home after a difficult commute only to hear the typewriter’s guttural chant: feed me, feed me.  His body shook with the surge of long-suppressed tears, he tasted ash in his mouth and let out a savage roar that caused the neighbour’s cat to go into hiding for so long her owners thought she had passed away.  He smashed and crashed his way through the kitchen, an open wound, a primitive maelstrom; a writer unwritten.

Eventually he gathered some semblance of control over himself and staggered back to his typewriter. Use this. Use this, use this, he whispered to his racing heartbeat; this could be the real masterpiece.  One letter at a time, he began to type.

2am

“Your problem is you don’t know how to start your stories,” he said, pushing his wire frame glasses up his nose with a nicotine-stained finger.  “You need to start with a bang, a hook; a mystery.  You need to grab the reader’s attention immediately, not a few paragraphs down the page.”  He dropped my dog-eared manuscript in front of me.  It was covered in livid red ink; deconstructive feedback.

I sat there feeling mildly humiliated by him, yet again, but then again I’d joined a creative writing class for the criticism.  He moved on to the pretty girl to my right (the one who never knowingly left the house without a low-cut top) “Great work as ever, Julia.” A generous glimpse down.

The difference between a smile and a leer is drool.

He moved to the front to deliver his sermons to the class; he’d started the first class with “Most writing is banal, most writers at best merely proficient. With my help, someday you might be proficient.”  Was that a meaningful glance in my direction?

__

2am now and my vision is still fuzzy from embarrassment, mind still fizzy from the output of my internal chemical factory – fight, flight or fright.  Old, clammy sweat clings to my forehead reflecting the brutal bathroom light in the mirror.  It’s too hot to sleep – too hot in the room and too hot in my brain.

A fly buzzes forlornly against the window that’s never touched a drop of cleaning fluid.  The bare light bulb blinks so I pull the string and loiter in darkness peering at the space where my reflection used to be.

__

Each lesson had a theme: ‘conflict’, ‘character relationships’; today’s was ‘mystery’.  “The example piece I gave you opened with the protagonist’s reaction to a photograph he’d received, which caused shock and revulsion.  But really it opened by showing the reader a mystery: what is it a photo of? Then immediately: why is it so shocking?  Why 2am?  The revelation that it was blackmail raised more questions than it answered – who, how, to what end?  Why the withheld number?  Each reveal in fact increased the mystery, until the final twist that the message had come from his wife – the person he most wanted to keep in blissful unawareness of his philandering.”

To give the man his due, it was a fantastic story, profound despite the mundane subject matter.  It takes a special talent to breathe life into calcified clichés.

In reading aloud extracts to us his obvious passion for words really came into its own.  He was never more animated than when quoting himself.  He wasn’t good-looking but charisma trumps all.

This short discussion, more a monologue, had been followed up by passing a copy of an anonymous new work for the class to critique with our own indelicate tools.  “I’ll give you a moment to read through this piece and take some notes.”  But of course we knew he couldn’t wait for long to begin explaining everything the author had done wrong.

“This short story explores the father-son conflict through the conceit of two vampires: the master and his pupil, competing for the same victim,” he said, somehow affecting a quizzical eyebrow through speech alone.  My heart sank with the realisation that the story to be torn apart was my own.

“Any thoughts, anyone?”  The class shuffled collectively and avoided eye contact; as ever, no one wanted to be first.  “I’m disappointed…” he tailed off, casting a coolly appraising gaze around the room before it alighted on me.  “What about you Mark?  Any thoughts?”

From a distance it can be hard to distinguish the flush of embarrassment from that of blind rage.  “I quite liked it,” I said, “maybe…too many?.. Adjectives?”

“Too many adjectives,” his eyes blazed, “Exactly right, Mark.  Any idea why the adjective use is a problem in this story? Anyone?”

I’m ashamed that I felt grateful for the pat on the head.

Hesitant theories were proffered until the professor heard one he liked. “Yes, Nina, the adjectives make the reader too passive – and unlike with TV, the reader is active.  You need the space to draw your own picture, your own conclusions.  Well done, Nina.”

No mistaking her blush for anger.

The class warmed to the task – Antoine (not his given name) disliked the pacing, Sarah thought it would have been better written in the third person.  Ben thought the vampire idea was “lame”, Chris said he just didn’t really get it.  Antoine felt that the “lexicon was too gauche for the subject matter”.  Rachel thought the character names “weren’t very vampire”.

With each incision I sank lower in my chair, the crude cuts as painful as the sharp: my grammar was off, too much dialogue and not enough action, the victim too idealised, and on and on.

__

A fact is just a prejudice confirmed by others

A fact is just an opinion with poorer manners. 

I am a bad writer.  This is a fact.

__

Then Julia put her hand up.  “Yes Julia?” the professor gave her an amused-bemused look.  All eyes turned to her.  “I really liked it; I thought the author captured the dynamic really well.  And I didn’t feel spoon-fed.  In fact I thought it was beautifully written, adjectives and all.”

He nodded slightly then raised his voice for the class, “Julia liked it, everybody.  And that’s the point!… It’s not just about what I think – it’s what you all think too.  I am only here to show you the way to good taste.” His words dripped with the charming sincerity of the chronically insincere.

“All good points, well done.  But despite this story’s over-reliance on them, don’t be too hard on adjectives.  After all, if we never used adjectives they would die out and our language would be all the poorer for it.  However, as I’ve always said, a few go a long way.”

“My own impression of the story is this: there were some strong details – the dilation of the victim’s pupils, his quickening breath.  All very ‘bodice ripper’ as though part of him is turned on by the inevitable.  Adds a slightly sexual element to the violence.  And the writer cleverly resisted the urge to tell us this too explicitly. It’s also quite interesting that he made the victim a male when they are so often women in this sort of fiction.”

He broke off for a sip of water from the bottle he always kept full on the desk.  He believed in good hydration.

“But the fundamental flaw with this story is the characterisation.  A writer must neither idealise nor demonise his characters, which can be tricky as space is so limited and exposition so dull.”

“Likewise, in real life we might take an instant dislike to someone for no apparent reason.  But in writing we must at least imply one.  Jealousy, for example.  This also helps flesh out the players.  In contrast, in this story, the elder was ultimately too cruel to be believable.  And before that, the younger had no apparent motivation to hate him – their conflict was merely competition for the sake of it.  In your writing you must go deeper.”

He paused, bathed in the applause of 20 pens furiously scratching.

__

I stumble blindly to my bed – must clear out the hall – to a sticky bed framed by the hunter’s moon.  Nothing yet from Julia, my writing partner for the task.  After a few weeks of class it became clear that my writing wasn’t improving, that whatever he had to teach me wasn’t going in.  But I kept going. 

I’d noticed she had a habit of biting her lower lip, an endearing display of shyness at odds with her outfits.  She was the type of girl other women dismissed as ‘pretty in an obvious way’ – she hit the male libido with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

Julia had held out her hand politely that first week.  We’d exchanged the odd word since, nothing you’d call a conversation.  I’ve never been shy with women but with some you just can’t help yourself.  But this was the opportunity to get to know her, preferably biblically.

“He’s a bit up himself, but I suppose you can be when you’re that good.  I still can’t believe he’s teaching us,” she’d said.

“I suppose being a lecturer doesn’t pay that well, even if you’re also a novelist.”  She’d ignored my bitter barb and exchanged numbers with a promise to text a date.  Left me in my misery to clarify some points with him.  

__

“Ok, sermon over.  Now there’s a bit of a change for next week – you’ll be writing in pairs to try and learn from one another.  And don’t forget we’ll be looking at Roald Dahl’s short stories, so do try and actually read a couple.”  A wolfish smile before besotted sheep.

I sat there in misery while the class slowly dispersed.  The professor remained perched on the desk at the front fielding questions wildly and flirting mildly.  I wanted to speak to him in private but could feel the tightness of tears at the back of my throat.  Instead I blankly packed my things to the damp, ambient soundtrack of hero worship and trudged off with concrete feet.

__

2am and I stare dumbly at my phone, willing it to go off.  It does, but it’s not from Julia.  It’s from him.

A photo message, surprisingly well defined (another of his apparently limitless talents). 

Dilated pupils in kohl-rimmed eyes, a face flushed with pink.  And falling away the eye is drawn to firm, swollen breasts, down to a supple waist and beyond that… Julia’s nakedness hits my solar plexus with all the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.

And below that a caption: all the best, love Dad.

 

__

 

 

Why Do You Blog

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”  Ernest Hemingway

It can be said of life that it’s a mix of successes and disappointments; one grubby little compromise followed by another until eventually the whole thing ends.  But less bleak than that because it also involves cocktails.

It could also, perhaps more accurately, be said of life that it’s all a bit too messy and complex to be distilled into trite slogans.

Sometimes it’s as irritating as the comedy series Miranda.

It can leave a sour taste, an itch you can’t reach, a sneeze that won’t come, a stranger’s tinny earphone leakage; the invasion of the yuppie and his sterility into the places where the wild things (used to) play.

When you’ve had your fill of the intimate smells of others on crowded trains and buses, or you’ve seen one too many shitty memes tagged LOLZ!!, or yet another cod-spiritualist aphorism swiped from a greeting card and posted on MyFace.  When (shudder) the gin runs out…

That’s why I write.

Or as someone else once put it

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”  Graham Greene

Then again it’s bloody difficult

I’ve always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it’s a bit like fucking—which is fun only for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”  Hunter S Thompson

Luckily, the gin can help

Write drunk; edit sober” Ernest Hemingway

That’s better.  Why do you write?

__

PS: Yes this was just a transparent excuse to use that Hunter S Thompson quotation.

Diagnosis: Writer’s Block

I have some bad news, I’m afraid.  It’s writer’s block.  You’ve got it pretty bad, worst case I’ve seen since before Stephen King realised he could simply cut and paste a different haunted/evil object into his previous novels.   You’ve got nothing to say and no words with which to say it.  That last sentence is a case in point.  There’s a nasty strain of it going round, Dr-patient confidentiality prevents me from naming names, but you know who they are.

There’s no real cure – we can try to treat the symptoms, but that’s about it.  It might last for days or weeks, maybe years.  Maybe it’ll never go away.

Another thing. Um. This isn’t easy, I don’t want to be insensitive at this difficult time…but, your insurance doesn’t cover it.  I’d love to help, but my frustrated hands are tied.  See, you’re even lifting lines from The Faculty.

Don’t try and hide it; don’t try swiping bits and pieces from here and there hoping no one will notice.  People notice these things: people will notice.

Your condition has received a lot of media attention, it’s no longer seen as just a, a fiction writer’s disease anymore, y’know a lifestyle thing.  People might be uncomfortable at first, then rubberneck, ask to see the scars.  I served in ‘Nam, I know how it is.  But they won’t cross the street to avoid you.  They won’t commit hate crimes against you – won’t call you ‘blocky’ or worse.  Well, some might.  There’s always some asshole.  But that’s something, right?

Mostly they’ll try and be understanding, even though they can’t understand.

I won’t lie to you, it’s gonna’ be a difficult few months: recuperation, rehabilitation, that’s assuming the treatment even works.  That’s assuming you get your insurers to back you.

No, you can’t afford me.  Go on, say pro bono on more time.

You’ll get frustrated, but whatever you do, don’t rush it, don’t try and force it by writing crap like this:

Phone box, somewhere in the Midwest, some kind of suburban ‘city’ like Aurora, Illinois. Spring time, midnight, in the rain.

…Franklin it’s me.  I can’t talk long I think the feds is trailin’ me – maybe they got a wire I dunno’, I ain’t some poindexter just some schmo’ got in too deep.  I think I’m goin’ down this time, Franklin, all ‘cause some broad couldn’t keep her mouth shut round some bent cop who wanted out.  He wanted to go straight, sold me out to pay for it.

Listen Franklin, I gotta’ go; they’re closing in like that old show Dragnet.  Tell Babyface if I catch him messing with my hooch he’ll be sorry, tell Kazinsky to cool it for a while, and tell… tell my little cousin Sammy I’m gonna’ miss his big game.  Break it to ‘im gently.  And Franklin? Tell my old lady, tell her…Oh shucks they comin’ and I don’t think they’re playin’ this time.  Just tell her somethin’ sweet ‘n easy.

[off phone]

I ain’t goin back, ya hear?! I won’t go!  You’re gonna’ have to come get me!

[gun shots ring out]

Dial tone…

See how awful that was?  How hackneyed?  I mean you could throw in some expletives or something, some pop-culture references, do a Tarantino.  Or maybe some explosions.  Have it follow a car chase and you’ve got a Michael Bay film right there.  Or…you get the picture.

Just don’t give up the fight.

See, you’ve even given me writer’s block.  It shouldn’t even be infectious.

Like I said, you got it bad.