The Trial

Admittedly, it was a much younger me who wearily toted a heavy little case up the seven flights of steps to his apartment in France, finally balancing it on his knee while fumbling for the key and then the lock in the darkness. The door opened to a well-lit and ill-furnished set of rooms consisting entirely of a twin bed, a card table, three hard wooden chairs, a little kitchen table, and a fridge and stove.

I carefully laid the slightly moldy case upon the card table, clicked two snaps, a spring-hingled lid flipped open, and there it was: a children's typewriter.

Mind you, the keys were shuffled about in different places. The French use AZERTY, not QWERTY, and the previous decade of using English computer keyboards would prove to be a difficult habit to break. And then there was the ribbon. Apparently, no one expects a child to write very much. The ribbon had to be rewound every half page, and the fingernail of my pinkie finger was just barely small enough to twist the spool.

Not one to be easily discouraged by a few technical issues, I lifted the machine out of the case and set up my little writing space. A touch of hammer cleaning, a few squirts of machine oil, and my first sheet of A4 paper was wound up around and facing me, the sum of all my terrors: complete and utter blankness. Like my mind.

I had been using computers and word processors for nearly ten years. During all that time, I had pecked out poems, slogged through the shallow waters of my aborted novel plots, rehashed and repurposed classroom lessons from my lit degree, and produced an array of ambiguous articles that no one would ever read, yet alone publish. Now, here I was, a performer without a net. No deleting, no insertions, no editing: just the bare and indelible ink of my words slammed down upon the pages, clackety clack, with only an audible rhythm and a tiny stack of paper to mark my progress.

And yet, the ritual slowly formed, beginning in this most haphazard of ways, shaped from chaos (O! you should have heard me curse, hitting the wrong keys constantly), underscored by my inability to grasp anything familiar in my newfound world, and then --lethargically at first-- evolving into something that became a natural part of my life.

Each afternoon, I would leave the school where I taught and pick up a baguette, some chicken, a small cheese, and a handful of fruit. A quick dinner, and I would plant myself upon my rickety Windsor chair at the card table. I would pour a small glass of Saint Remy brandy (warmth in the tummy), tune my little radio into the local classical station (cue the Bizet and Saint-Saëns), stare out into the landscape of farmlands extending to the northwest (the direction of Poitiers), roll a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter (click, whirrr, clack), and then start typing. It didn't matter what. Normally, the first page was destined for the garbage bin: a jumbled mixture of uneven words and phrases that popped into my mind, a stream of consciousness oracular babble, a clearing of the synaptic clutter.

But by the second or third page, a miracle would usually happen, and a semi-coherent flow of thoughts, characters, plots or exposition would pour forth, seemingly unaffected by any conscious force. Clacking away till midnight or 3 am or sunrise, I lost myself in the torrent, became a raft caught up in the currents and eddies and rapids of a wild river. Every half page the ink would run out, the little finger would frantically rewind the ribbon, and the words would stream forth again. It wasn't unusual to write twenty pages a night.

More than a decade on, I can look back upon those writings with an odd mixture of self-pity, surprise and awe. Emotional outpourings and self-loathing were abundant, there in thick layers, screaming to be scraped away. Naive ramblings and ill-considered conjectures were embarrassing, fit to be hid or burnt. Cliché, redundancy, poor imitations of my cherished literary heroes, saccharine-laced musings about love, misguided notions of chivalry, and page after page of confused diatribes, stereotyped characters and stilted dialogue make review today a painful experience.

Yet there is something of value there. Occasionally, there is a brilliant turn of phrase, the unexpected glimpse of a show-stealing character, the warmth of a tender emotion, the subtle expression of a powerful symbol, or the musicality of verse that one generally only reads among the finer writers. Rare gems in the slurry, so to speak. But ultimately, the words show the beginnings of a struggling wordsmith learning to use language, the first steps on a life-long odyssey to craft sentences, ideas, themes.

I probably produced over 3000 typewritten pages on that little kid's typewriter that year. While I didn't create many passages of lasting importance, I got something far more valuable: I finally taught myself how to write.

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which only goes to show,

which only goes to show, that if you are meant to do something, you will find a way... :-)