Monday, February 17, 2014

the typewriter was erupting

"I saw at once that the typewriter was erupting. The old green Smith-Corona typewriter on the table was exploding with fire and ash. Showers of sparks shot out of its caldera - the dark hollow in which the keys lie. Smoke and cinders poured out, noises exploded and spattered, black dense smoke rose up, and a wild, deep fire lighted the whole thing. It shot sparks." 

- Annie Dillard in The Writing Life 

Many of you will be familiar with this passage by Annie Dillard. Many of you will have her book on your shelf. Mine is hardcover, and I bought it when it first came out, 1989.

She talks about cleaning the typewriter after its volcanic eruption. And then says, "I have had no trouble with it since. Of course, now I know it can happen."

These days, our computers crash, our hard drives buckle. Our keyboards start to stick and a key or two will resist. You'll remember that my computer crashed this past summer, and at the same time I developed Bell's Palsy. I can't help but read things into that time.

But, The Writing Life.

The book is a good one, and still useful to anyone embarking on the writing life. It doesn't, of course, tell the whole story. I often think there should be a book for emerging writers with a chapter written by an accountant, telling them how to best parcel out their meagre funds, how to stay out of debt, how to save for those times when you have little money but much to say. A chapter on your second career and how to manage that, how to make it work with the writing.

The things books on the writing life don't tell you are innumerable. They don't tell you about all the waiting you will do. They don't tell you how long your work will sit in slush piles. Once in a while you will get the courage to write an editor and ask how your work is doing in aforementioned slush pile. Sometimes you will hear, oh, I didn't know your work was in the pile, or it was misplaced, or oh, we were just about to send you a rejection slip. Books on the writing life don't tell you that it's possible to be simultaneously waiting for 6 different things at once, and that you will never not be waiting on some news. They don't tell you how all this waiting will affect your nervous system. How unnerved you will become.

Books on the writing life don't tell you how over time you begin to understand how crazy some people think you are for continuing to write since you barely begin to break even on the enterprise most years. The books don't tell you how tired you become of trying to explain yourself. And that you stop explaining yourself. When you're young and dreaming of your literary career you don't factor in the days when you're so tired you could be in another realm, when you feel like mud. You don't factor in the perimenopause and the way you will have to squish your writing time, your writing self, into one part of the week, and the rest of the week you will inhabit other roles sometimes forgetting you even have a writing self.

You won't know how few free days you will actually have and you don't know about so many of the impediments, the obstacles you will face, not to mention you won't know how doubt operates on you over time. You won't know the strange way critical reception or lack thereof will alter your path. In fact, all the odd, small yeses and nos - how each little move changes this or that. The garden of forking paths, obviously. Illnesses will come into play, your own perhaps, heaven forbid, and the illnesses and needs of others.

Books on the writing life rarely tell you how odd you're going to become, if you happen to be able to stick with it for long enough. How off kilter the so-called ordinary life will start to seem and how all you want to do is bury yourself in the writing life but how unlikely that is to happen. How you will spend a lot of time and energy, indeed, trying to appear normal. You will become more eccentric. Maybe anti-social. Books on the writing life should remind you to take acting lessons, so that you can move between realms more easily.

We are reading, and also writing, Dillard says, "in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed..." This is the truth of it.

Did I mention? you will also forget to breathe some days.

Buy yourself some roses and put them on your desk to remind yourself.

This will work for a time.


  1. I do have the book on my shelf and thank you for reminding me to insert it into the queue of books waiting for me on my bedside table.....time to read Annie again. LOVE the photos! I remember when I did all my writing on an old Underwood and then upgraded to an electric typewriter. I thought I was so styling. But nothing matches the joy of a computer with which I now cannot live.

  2. I admire the courage you must have to follow your own calling, your unique quest for truth. I think, sometimes, that the sacrifices demanded by following the creative path, the constant testing of the self, are both the best and the worst of it. But of course, those are just my thoughts about it. Congratulations on the upcoming book, I look forward to reading it. Will you have a photography book too? I do hope so.

  3. Oh, Shawna, I am not a writer, just a lover of poetry and writing. I am so grateful for all of those sacrifices that you and your sister/brother writers make daily throughout your lives.

  4. Thank you all for visiting and the nice and encouraging words.


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