Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They Shoot Horses, Don't they? by Horace McCoy

Brief Synopsis: 
In the height of the Great Depression, two young Hollywood hopefuls with empty pockets meet and decide to hitch their dreams on a marathon dance. They are forced to stay on their feet for weeks on end, swaying, dancing, and competing in "derbies" in which they heel-toe around a track like racehorses, fighting to stay in the contest one more day where they might be "discovered" by a director and win a $1000 prize. Robert and Gloria explore the limits of their humanity and the jagged edges of mercy.

Published: 1935

Format read: eBook (I read this on my shiny new Kindle Paperwhite, but if I had it to do over, I would have sought out a floppy old mass market paperback, well used with musty, yellowed pages. There is just something about reading a moody book full of grit and truth in a format that mirrors that experience. Sometimes eBooks are just

Genre: Most often considered "crime noir", but there is a lot of character and symbolism to chew on here.

Comparison: It is kind of a cross between The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. It is set in the Depression and centered around characters who are struggling with internal demons amid a parallel event, in this case a dance marathon, that shakes up their insides until they froth out on the surface and soak into the ground.

There is an element of the gray desperation that permeates The Grapes of Wrath but without Steinbeck's peculiar eye for simple beauty and hopefulness. Short, tight, and dramatic, it has a little of the flavor of Marigolds, but in an inverted form. The depraved enmity and bitterness shown by Beatrice in Marigolds is also present in Gloria from Horses, as are Tillie's hardiness and (to a lesser extent) faith present in Robert, though in this case, they are basically dumped over his head, worthless as water.

Review: This novel did not fare well in the US when it was first released. It was not until the deep days of WWII that it found its way into the hands of French existentialists. They were a natural audience, given the contrast between Robert's "take it as it comes" attitude and Gloria's fatalistic bitterness.

Robert finds meaning in life through whatever opportunities present themselves, and he desires to become a director of short films that demonstrate the daily lives of average people. Some could argue that he invented reality television, but that's neither here nor there.

Gloria, on the other hand, has no meaning in life and nothing to strive for. She's not even striving to strive. The dance marathon is so symbolic of the way she has lived her life until that point--moving, moving, moving, resting for shattered moments, patching up only the most broken bits, and doing so only waiting to see how long it takes until it all ends. She is simply through with the world and everything in it. She doesn't care about anyone's feelings because she doesn't care about her own.

An existentialist might say that the world means only what a person brings to it, and Gloria comes with empty hands--limp, painful, empty hands. When Robert comes to realize that she is broken and that she will never be able to hold onto any sort of meaning which would bring her anything but misery, he has to resort to his own internal framework for right and wrong and must act based on his own personal experiences of mercy.

This novel is a tight one, so tight you could probably bounce a quarter off the cover and end up with two dimes and a nickel. It's almost like a play and has been adapted for the stage and screen. The novel is in first person POV, but even then doesn't linger much in Robert's inner monologue, and when it does, it is worth it.

There are some spots when a little more color could have been dabbed on to make the setting and characters more vivid, but somehow the drab tone works. It becomes experiential--the tone of the novel mimics for the reader what the characters are feeling, which is predominantly dehumanization. They are numb, they are holed up in a dark, sweaty space, and they are shuffled around from trough to trailer to track until they fall on their faces. 

The absence of "color" offers the reader a heightened sense of contrast, just like going outside after a long time in a darkened room. There is one notable passage when Robert dances his way into a triangle of sunlight streaming through a window. He stays in that triangle, swaying, until it creeps all the way up his body, finally standing on his tiptoes so that it can linger on his face as long as possible before leaving him back in the dark. Later, a character leaves under duress and Robert finds himself staring through the crack in the door as he goes, drinking in a flash of red from a fiery sunset. Though he should have felt sorry for the character's departure, he states that it had been the greatest part of his day because he had been allowed to see the sun. When Robert and Gloria finally go outside, there is a brief but beautiful passage detailing Robert's first breaths of sea air after being inside for nearly 900 hours:

"It was after two o' clock in the morning. The air was damp and thick and clean. It was so thick and so clean that I could feel my lungs biting it off in huge chunks." 

He's hungry, so hungry. What a great way to show it. 

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is the way McCoy layers on the symbolism. Maybe he meant to, maybe he didn't, but that's one of the most important tenets of understanding art: it is a collaboration between creator and consumer. Either way, there were some elements that were striking to me, and in keeping with the kinds of literature that we normally consider "higher station" (which doesn't mean a heck of a lot to me).

Pay special attention to the parallels between the lives of these "kids" and the lives of horses. They are forced to compete in "derbies," in which the male partners have special belts for their female partners to hold onto, like a jockey on a horse. They are herded and fed and offered sleep and medical care insofar as it keeps them on the dance floor. Once they are past their point of usefulness or turn up last in a derby, they are little more than dog meat.

There appeared to be some parallels between Robert's shifting view of the Pacific Ocean and his shifting view of life. He mentions that he comes to resent the Pacific, which rolls endlessly under his feet beneath the dance floor without his permission. This becomes symbolic of life rolling along, vast and ageless, knocking us off our balance and driving us mad with its persistence.

This is not a book to read after a rough day, and it is certainly not going to leave you with a smile. However, if you pay attention and dig for the nut in the shell, you'll find that it leaves you with a lot to think about that is worth thinking about. It can be read in one good-sized setting, and I think it benefits from that kind of momentum. It adds a sort of meta-effect that strengthens the emotional resonance of the book. If you get tired of reading it, it just gives you a tiny taste of the what the dance marathon is doing to the characters. Where you, reader, become antsy and start thinking about the leftovers in the fridge, the characters are coming apart at the seams, worn to their washed-out bones.

I'm planning on seeking out the 1969 Sydney Pollack film, which I know took a lot of liberties and stretched out the narrative like a stiff piece of taffy. Even so, it has a great rep among film buffs, and I'm eager to see Pollack's interpretation of this little book. It sure does pack a punch. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Small, but Mighty

Tiny toad or GIANT paper towel?
This is Trevor the Tiny Toad. Trevor, as you can see (unless I am reading this aloud to you against your will), is a tiny toad.

Despite his size, Trevor is a pretty impressive guy. When we met, I happened to be walking through the foyer of my house and Boo, my Teacup Panther, was in full-on jungle cat mode. I followed her line of sight and saw what I thought was a fairly chubby spider floundering around on the floor, terrified that my Totally Full-Sized Panther was about to eat it up.

When I scooped up a paper towel and went to dismiss it from the house, I noticed something unusual about the spider. This unusual spider was actually a tiny toad.

He was so cute, but more than cute, he was brave. I put him on the paper towel and readied to take him outside despite the yowling protests of the ferocious Boo-cat.

As soon as he let me take a quick paparazzi shot, he immediately jumped from the paper towel and attacked my flesh-eating house panther. He jumped right toward the cat once and then again. Boo didn't know what to do with herself. She got out of jungle-cat mode and into "What the heck is going on here?" mode and actually took a step back. This cat, who took on a German Shepherd mix without ruffling a whisker, backed down from a frog the size of a corn flake.

He was small, but he was mighty. 

Thai chilies

These are Thai Chilies. I have seen specks of dust bigger than these guys, but if you are like me and your nose and eyes start running from a sprinkle of black pepper on your eggs, I would not suggest eating them. As a matter of fact, I would not suggest that you get them anywhere near your person. Trust me. Trust. Me.

These peppers are small enough to sneak unseen into a bowl of delicious, non-searing, normal food and turn your poor, sensitive mouth into a ground-zero disaster area.

They are small, but they are mighty.

Rest in peace, little friend. See you on the other side.
And then, there's Bren. Bren was named after a character in one of my young adult novels--also a small bird who ends up injured and requiring care from loved ones. I met Bren when I was out for one of my solitary walks.

It was a dark and lonely evening, just the way I like it. I was strolling right along, listening to my music and paying more attention to what was inside my head than outside of it when a flutter just to the hair's-breadth right of my foot caught my eye.

Being the huge chicken that I am, I skittered sideways and took two giant steps away from whatever tiny fluttery thing I had seen. (Maybe Boo and I aren't so different.) Once I was satisfied that whatever it was couldn't reach me, I craned my neck and squinted my eyes to see what it was I was so afraid of.

There, on the pavement and nowhere near a tree to call home, was a tiny bird still wearing his fluff and oversized baby-bill. He hopped around on the asphalt, running himself into circles that drifted farther and farther into the center of the street. I stood there and watched him until the spread of headlights froze us both in time like a nuclear flash. I was still two giant steps away from the little guy, and he was oh-so-barely not in the dead center of the road. My heart skipped every one of its beats as I dashed over to scoop him up.

The truck turned off harmlessly in the driveway a couple of doors down, and there I stood with a cheeping, chirping, injured baby bird in my hands. I had a choice to make. This thing had scared the stuffing out of me twice--once for my life and once for his--and there was no going back. I named him and he was mine to care for, just that fast.

I searched high and low for his nest, prowling through neighborhood yards with a flashlight and daring someone to come out in a bathrobe and ask me what I thought I was doing to their trees. Finding none, I called every 24 hour vet in town until I located a wildlife specialist who was as crazy as I was and allowed me to bring him to her home at 10pm.

She took him in and cared for him, but the head injury that landed him almost smack underneath my foot ultimately won out, and the world lost the best, brightest bird it ever would have known if he'd just had the chance to prove it.

Some people think of starlings as pests, but when I see them, I think of that tiny bird and our strange, anxious couple of hours together. I think of how I loved him instantly and completely even though it confirmed that I am a total nutcase.

He was small, but so, so mighty.

There is inspiration everywhere, but sometimes we tend to focus on the big things: the epiphanies, the in-your-face bright lights and gut-punches, the heart-making and heart-breaking. I challenge you to squint up your eyes and look a little closer at some of the smaller things in your life. Cock your ear to the whispers and see what you hear. There is so much to take in that we just don't have the time or vision to notice.

There is a whole other world hiding beneath the obvious. Though it is small, it is undeniably mighty.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Facilitating Daydreams

Today I thought I'd highlight some important tools of the trade that are crucial to my creative consciousness, but which do their work quietly and without heralding their importance to the world. Without these things, I could not do the one thing that fuels my every creative and not-so-creative endeavor: daydream.

I could write an entire post about the necessity of daydreaming (and I probably will), but there are a couple of things that help me be able to daydream, and therefore, to write:

My feet.
My iPod. (Actually, it's my husband's. Shh. Don't tell him.)
A solitary place to walk.
That's it. Without those things, my creative engine short-circuits and my energy is off kilter. Sometimes I have to go and "walk it out" to give my brain time to fire off all the sequences it's processing and pair them to the mood of the music I'm pumping into my ears. From there, I can begin to make sense of the little ideas and snippets that I can't figure out how to put together. While I'm walking, my mind gets a chance to wander in cadence, and it helps get things in line. Not to mention that having an opportunity to open up my senses to new stimuli that I can't directly control can send my mind off in unexpected directions, unlike my desk where nothing changes except the smell when it's time to bathe the dog.

The Feet

Mine are the big ones on the right, pictured with fellow Converse Comrades.
My feet kind of suck. They are flat and they hurt. A lot. They were actually the reason that I stopped working as a bookseller. I put a big ol' stress fracture in my navicular bone and very intelligently worked for six months with a limp before I went to the doc.

Do not do this.

I was in a boot with crutches for the better part of a year, and this turned me into a soggy ball of anxious laborador who waited by the door for Husband to come home every day so that he could drive me in the car while I stuck my head out the window and wagged my tail. I wrote a lot during that period of time since I couldn't go for my walks, but none of it was good...because I couldn't go for my walks.

My feet still hurt, and I still abuse them, but I love them so. They are more than transportation. When it comes to my creativity, they are basically an extension of my brain.

The Music

iPod 5th generation, 2005-2013 RIP (Died of battery cancer. Very sad.)
I am a musician and I married a musician and most of my friends are musicians and I imagine that most of my characters are musicians even if they don't say so. Music is not just an important part of my life, it is part of my DNA, like blue eyes and sarcasm. I devour songs, stringing them in one ear and out the other, sucking all the inspiration off of them and leaving nothing but bones behind. I am always trolling for a new song or band or melody or lyric. I slurp them all up. Without music to keep up my energy and set the mood, my walks become painful and exhausting and my writing empty and without ambiance. I can say unconditionally that I am addicted to music. I hope I never recover.

The Path

I am a solitary creature. I crave aloneness like oxygen. If I do not feel alone, I cannot think. At all. Ever. I do my best writing in the middle of the night when my brain finally feels comfortable that every other sentient being in perceivable range is locked firmly in the "off" position. 

That goes for my walks too. If you're sitting on your porch and see me coming, I will pretend to tie my shoe and walk the other way. I will go back into my house and come back an hour later praying with all my might that you have tired of porch-sitting. Don't take it personally. It's not you, it's me. I go it alone, or I cannot go it. Period.

My neighborhood is great for walking. It's quiet, it's safe, and there are multiple paths I can slink and slide around if I see any other person stick their head out of their home. (Obviously not having gotten the memo that when I am outside NO ONE ELSE is allowed outside. Anywhere, for any reason.)

Achieving Success

If a walk is successful, it means that I have managed for some short period of time forget who and where I am and absorb myself in the more fertile patches of my mind where story ideas and characters are spawned. The music keeps the pain from my feet at bay, keeps my breathing steady, and helps me forget. My feet keep moving, one step and then the next, keeping my energy pumping a cadence. The road sits a silent servant beneath me, rolling on and on until my idea crests its apex and sends me running back in the house for a pen.

Of everything I love about my walks, my favorite part is, was, and always will be running back in the house for a pen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Suicide Perch

This is Boo.


Boo is my Teacup Panther. She wears a lot of hats: professional muse, flesh-eating feline, and cat litter connoisseur. (Never again, Fresh Step. Never. Again.)

Boo is also stupidly brave. This is Boo sitting atop what Husband and I now call the Suicide Perch.

Suicide Perch
It looks like a great place for Boo to sit until you look over the edge of that banister and realize that there is nothing over there except the tile floor. The hard tile floor that is a loooong way down in kitty miles.

And yet, this is her second favorite place to sit in the house. She doesn't care that one false move would render her a furry pancake with fangs. She just knows that this is where she wants to sit, darn it, and we stupid humans had better get over it. (And while we're at it, we should lay off the coffee and get a massage. Geez, don't humans know how to relax?)

The thing Boo knows and that we can't get our heads around is that to her, the risk is worth it. That spot has some allure for her that brings her more value than the fear of falling can negate. (Let's pretend here that she actually has a fear of falling. In reality, this cat fears nothing. Nothing.)

Lately, it has become even more clearly evident to me that in order to crank out the kind of work I can be proud of, I have to stop being a chicken.

My friends, I am such a chicken.

It has only been lately that I have finally internalized the fact that there is no way around it. If I am ever going to write anything that will resonate with people deep on their insides (which is the best place for people to resonate), I have to put aside the shyness, swallow my pride, and crush the fear.

Basically, I have to take a cue from the cat and find a vein of stupid courage to sit on my own Suicide Perch, spit over the edge, and make some art.

Know what? I'm still a little afraid to shift my weight or look down too long, but it's kinda working.

What does the Suicide Perch mean to you? What's on the other side? What about it has value to outweigh the risk?

If there is something out there you just can't write about, then grab up a pen and do it anyway. Your work will thank you.

What have you got to lose? Cats have nine lives, but writers have as many as it takes to get it right.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


My novel structure is finally starting to come together and look a little more like...well, a novel. The lay of the land is getting clearer and setting up solid. It's about time I had a few rocks to lean on in this thing, and if I do say so myself, some of them are very pretty rocks.

Here's to the landscape with its wilds and wastes and wonder. There is a lot to see, and for now, I'm enjoying the ride.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Intersection

When I meet a person, real or fictional, the first question I ask myself is what road brought him or her to stand in front of me. Then I wonder which road will call to them when they walk on by.

In some contexts I hope to nudge a person this way or that toward greater good in their lives: safety, support, comfort, compassion, empowerment.

Other times, I just hold my breath while they pass so I don't accidentally veer them off course.

Every person we meet and every choice we make is an intersection. Whether we like it or not, we make a choice to carry on or take a sharp turn to the left. Over, and over, and over again, we speed under the lights. Red, green, rarely enough yellow, we cruise right on through.

Think about what it means, all these crossroads--infinite possibilities, all painted shades of gray: What might have been? What should have been? Is there really such thing as should anyway? Am I lost? Where's the bathroom?

It isn't just the road we choose that changes our path. It is often the intersection itself which alters our course. How many times in your life have you thought, "If I had only known then what I know now, I would have done things differently." What you really mean is, "Why wasn't there a bridge-out sign way back there at the red-light when I had the chance to turn off?"

It's natural to wish that all the easy roads could touch, but unfortunately, that's rarely true. There are wolves waiting at the end of some of them, and hot meals with good company at the end of others. Sometimes we can't get to one without going down the other.

Today, write about an intersection, either literal or figurative. This intersection is a Big Deal. This intersection makes all the difference. Maybe it's a fugitive who hits a red light that never changes. Canada is just down the road and he has almost made it except for this stupid light. He'd run it, except sitting across the way is a cop--a very, very patient cop who revs his engine at the first sign of him running the light. No right on red.

Maybe it's more abstract: a painter who has to make a choice of blue or green for an element of his masterpiece. If he chooses blue, it will herald greatness and he will live in wealth and comfort for the rest of his life. If he chooses green, the piece will become a heartbreaking work of stark reality--and fade away into the obscurity of many heartbreaking works of stark reality. Throw in a blue-green colorblindness monkey wrench.

Toe the white lines in the crosswalks, count the cracks in the sidewalks. Listen in the distance to see what destiny sounds like from different directions. Take as long as you need to at that intersection, but in the end, you have to choose.

Otherwise, you'll never get where you're going. Wherever that may be.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Simple Motivation

Today, like the Grinch on Christmas morning, my heart has grown its deficit two sizes plus two more.

Today, someone whose opinion I greatly respect read my work and said that my writing reminds her of Virginia Woolf.

I don't believe her, but I have the strength of ten Grinches all the same.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blogroll

I would like to thank Ellen Morris Prewitt who graciously asked me to participate in The Next Big Thing Blogroll (or Blog Hop or Blog Tour or Blog Chain or The Next Blog Partridge in a Big Blog Tree) Project. Ellen has become an inspiration to me on a number of levels, not limited to her incredible writing chops, her skillful, sensitive work helping those experiencing homelessness to share their stories, and her unending patience with burgeoning fiction writers who are gnawing at their pages, clumsily cutting their teeth. (Ahem.)

The Next Big Thing Blogroll project is a cool initiative that gives writers a chance to share the passion they feel for their work and readers a chance to place talented new writers on their literary radar. I'm honored to participate.

1. What is the working title of your book? 
Somewhere in Between (or, The Last Porkchop)

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I wrote the first draft of this book, I was working as a bookseller at a large independent bookstore. I started my first shift when I was 22 years old. All I had to my name was a brand-new, seemingly useless, and incredibly expensive psychology degree, $3 in my pocket, and a tiny apartment that the landlord shockingly refused to let me live in for free. By the time I left the bookselling business for The Great Beyond, I was 27 years old with a seemingly useless and incredibly expensive master's degree, $3 in my pocket, and a husband who worked at the same bookstore (and consequently who also had only about $3 in his pocket).

During that span, I made friends I will keep for the rest of my life. I read--oh, I read, like a greedy, swollen tick glutting myself on the sweet (free!) blood of Advance Reader's Copies. I met authors whom I admired and picked their delicious brains. Most importantly, I grew up and began to fit into my own skin like I belonged to it.

When I started this novel, my aim was to take a character whose way of looking at the world was not so different from my own, and to show the complexities of early adulthood against a backdrop which was familiar to me--a bookstore.

During the process, I walked around the bookstore with my ears wide open and a notebook in my back pocket. Every crazy, frustrating, funny, endearing, enraging, outlandish, and wonderful thing I encountered got scribbled into that notebook so that I could rush home after closing (and cleaning the kids' section...*shudder*) to pour it into the novel.

That was the jumping off place. It was fun and cathartic, but from that first draft it was clear that my characters had minds of their own. I began to realize that I was forcing them into shapes that cramped them up and that I was putting words in their mouths which stuck in their teeth. Basically, I wasn't writing the novel I thought I was, and my poor characters were trying to tell me all along.

I'm a different writer now and the novel is a different animal. It has much tighter focus on the protagonist, who is running her life on a treadmill. She's always running away from something she can't escape and toward something she can't quite seem to reach. It is what I had been trying to say all along, but as I was still on my own treadmill at the time, I didn't realize it.

3. What genre does your book come under?
Good question. It is character-based and deeply introspective with themes of self-discovery, romance, and family drama.

So, Western?

Or literary fiction. Whichever.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 
This is a tough one. I've chosen people that somehow strike a chord that reminds me of my characters, even if they don't look exactly like they're written. 


Henry Cavill

Melissa Benoist

Matt Lanter


5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 
Uh........ Why isn't this multiple choice? C!

Here goes:  *squints eyes and grimmaces*
Following a devastating broken engagement, twenty-six year old Ali Forde struggles to navigate the terrain of her independence, tripping over every stone in her path: life, love, and the heartbreaking unreality of daydreams.

6. Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?
None yet. I plan to seek agent representation whenever I get through spit-dabbing its poor little face.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Oh, you know, a month. Or four years. Who's counting?

I wrote it as a Nanowrimo novel in 2008. By the early days of December I had a 110,000 word first draft that I effectively trashed.

I pocketed only the prettiest bones to flavor the "New Improved Not Really Like the Original at All" version, which has taken me about 4 years and half a bookcase full of notebooks to bring to life.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
 I'd say, for various and sundry reasons, that anyone who has enjoyed gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson, The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn would recognize in my work dawning self-understanding, the relentless unskeletoning of closets, and a crooked dark streak that is tempered with good dollop of humor and a unique descriptive style.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book? 
I gave the mushy answer in question #2, so now I'll tell the truth.

I was lazy.

I was doing Nanowrimo. I worked in a bookstore. I wrote down things that happened to me at work, then I went home and typed them as if they happened to another person.

Somewhere along the line, the characters started gnashing their little teeth and trying to tell their real story. Eventually, I listened.

I am no longer lazy.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
One of the emerging hallmarks of my style is that all of my fiction contains at least one fantastical element--except for this one. That said, I've been straining at the bit to make it feel like it does, mostly through the protagonist's (read: my) potent and peculiar imagination. Anyone who likes a novel that is not afraid to take both feet off the ground for a second will find something for them here.

Because of the setting and background of the protagonist, I would say that this is also a novel for dreamy book lovers and anyone who is familiar with the words "quarterlife" and "crisis." They will see themselves in Ali.

Also: Spongebob does not actually appear in the text. Now there is no reason NOT to read it.

Passing the Torch

If you're still reading this, you are a brave soul indeed, and I thank you for your patience. Next Wednesday, 3/13/13 (Whoa...triskaidekaphobics beware!), two of my writing partners and closest friends will be sharing some insights into their work. Be sure to check them out!

Laura Faircloth
Laura is a modern-day Wonder Woman. I've known her since college, and ever since then she has been astounding me with her enterprising spirit, drive, creativity, and talent. She's a career woman, a great wife and mom, and she has an incredible natural affinity for storytelling, especially stories with a romantic twist. She has quite a few wonderful projects stored away in boxes and bags, so I'm eager to see which one she will pull out to share with us.

Stacey Gamble
I've mentioned Stacey on the blog before as one of the most creatively talented people walking the earth. Of course that means she's a writer as well, and an amazing one at that. Stacey has a knack for pacing and plot that I would cut off an appendage to borrow. She is a fantasy lover, and her work benefits from her ability to think outside not only the box, but the planet. She's a meticulous, ambitious creator and has amassed a solid body of work. I'm looking forward to finding out which one we will get a peek at.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Rattletrap (the) Typewriter

For as much as I go on about my love of fountain pens and exotic inks, it may surprise you to know that I do, in fact, know how to type. I'm actually pretty good at it. *looks at nails smugly* My computer and I spend a lot of time together, especially my buddy the backspace key (who knows the truth that I'm not nearly so good at typing as I think I am), trying to decipher all those scribbly words in all my scribbly notebooks.

When I need a good refresher in typing precision and my anachronistic streak just won't leave me alone, I turn to my good buddy Rattletrap.

Rattletrap is a 1930's Royal Portable typewriter purchased from a dark, dusty corner in a pawnshop where it was overshadowed by half a clarinet and a stuffed cobra battling a mongoose. Once I got my husband to pull it away from the cobra (I don't do snakes, remember?), I opened the decrepit case and glowed with the kind of instant love I usually reserve for kittens and used books. Rattletrap was destined to be mine, I knew it down to my typewriter-less bones.

When I carted the typewriter up to the counter, the shop owner fed me a story about how it had been in the possession of a ninety-year-old woman who had it sitting peaceably on a table in her hall--the typewriter equivalent of, "She only drove it on Sundays." True or not, I forked over a twenty dollar bill and sauntered out with my new toy under my arm. I did not even notice the stuffed snake on my way out.

I named the typewriter Rattletrap because the keystrokes have such a pleasant kachank sound, which in quick succession smoosh together to sound like a fun, peppy maraca rattle. The "trap" part comes in by the fact that by the time I have this bad boy out of the case, I know that I'm going to be sitting in front of it for a while. It literally sticks me to my chair because it's simply too cool and quirky to walk away from. Anyone who writes knows how important the "stick to chair" part of the process is.

I also call it Rattletrap because--let's face it--it's a ramshackle typewriter from the 1930s that I bought from a pawn shop that sells dead snakes. Even in such only-driven-on-Sundays-by-a-sweet-little-old-lady pristine condition, this ain't no highbrow machine. This is an object that was made to work hard until its keys wear out. (Which, thankfully, they are a long way from doing.)

Rattletrap got a shave and a haircut (or some trumpet valve oil and a new ribbon thanks to Staples' wonderful selection of cash register ribbons), and has been working like a champ. The novelty of it stimulates my brain, getting the stories warmed up to trot out for a walk across the keys, but the added benefit is that it slows down my typing and makes me really concentrate on what I'm trying to say. It messes with the automatic muscle memory I usually use to type and that's a good thing. One of the reasons that pens are good for writers is that you can't write faster than you think like you do with a computer. With a typewriter, you get the same neatly typed text, but it slows you down to a rate comparable to that of handwriting. Throw in some decent OCR software (I use OCRTools for Mac), and you're well on your way. Another cool thing is that typewriters, like pens, are pressure sensitive. If I'm really hammering away at an intense scene, the words on the page reflect the physical tension I expelled when writing it. It doesn't matter much in the final product, but it's a cool meta-writing effect to consider when reflecting on your own work.

It's also worth noting that typewriters don't do a lot of the distracting things that computers do, like, I don't know, GET ON THE INTERNET. This alone makes writing productivity increase a whopping 100%!*

Rattletrap inspired a short story with the utterly creative and original working-title of "The Typewriter" which I will hopefully finish in the near future.

Just as soon as I check my email and finish this game of solitaire...

*Percentage based on the fact that I do 0% work on my writing while email, message boards, blogs, Hulu/Netflix, Amazon, or any other website ever created is available to me.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Life Inside the Banyan Tree

Thomas Alva Edison's famous banyan, Ft. Myers, FL
This is a banyan tree. Banyan trees are fascinating. They are fascinating because I'm 99.7% certain that my brain is actually a tiny banyan tree straining in my skull.

A banyan tree begins its life as a parasitic vine-like plant that uses a combination of charming pick-up lines and sneaky little seeds to dig itself into the cracks and crevices of a naive host tree.

My brain was once a naive host tree, but somewhere along the line, through huge amounts of fiction reading and an overabundance of precocious creative energy, I picked up a pen. Those little book-seeds have gotten into my cracks and crevices. The banyan brain is born.

Once the host tree is well covered in baby banyan, there is not much it can do but sit there and watch it go. It is an overachiever, completely unsatisfied to just be a tree on top of another tree. It must encompass all it surveys.

The Edison banyan tree was the first on U.S. soil.

It grows up and out, twisting, turning, and showing off. It practices growing branches, out and out and out. They keep growing just to see how far they can go. The branches grow so far and fast that the tree loses sight of the ends of them. They are growing on their own without supervision. These branches are wild things in and of themselves. They sag under their own weight. They are heavy, too heavy for any tree, even our overachieving banyan.

Likewise, too often my stories grow too distant and heavy for my overachieving, well-meaning brain.

These branches, mighty though they be, must have support to stand. The brave banyan rushes to work raining down snaky vine-roots that curve and curl their way to the ground where they push themselves under the dirt and slurp up all its nutrients. They grow thick and solid, assuring the branches success on their journey.

The tree carries on this way, this direction and that, throwing down these auxiliary trunks wherever it needs. This is why the banyan is sometimes called a "walking tree." 

The story threads that zoom off from my banyan brain in directions unbidden can only live if they have something to hold them up and connect them to the ground. This is where I find myself struggling sometimes. It's easy to think up scenarios, but having scenarios that can suck nutrients straight from the ground (reality) and use them to grow strong and prop up the idea can be a little harder to come by. I continue to try. I'm raining down little trunk-vines every which way hoping that some of them take root. I keep walking.

If the banyan is given the room to grow, it will encompass acres of land. It becomes more than a tree, it is a Tree, a forest of Tree, an entire woodland that is made of one sprawling, interconnected, single Tree.

If the idea is given room to thrive, it becomes more than an idea, it is Story, pages of Story, an entire tome of Story that is made of one sprawling, interconnected, single Idea.

So, fellow creatives, what do you see when you sit under the banyan tree? Can you lose yourself in it, dropping breadcrumbs so you remember how to pull yourself out? Maybe you tag every branch and measure it as it grows, trimming any willful sprout that dares to stick out an unwanted tendril.

Maybe your tree is not a banyan at all, but a steadfast oak, or a hard-worn and ever-verdant pine. Write about your tree, maybe even draw it. Close your eyes and smell the sap, listen to the leaves rustling up new thoughts. What kind of fruit does it bear--and is it sweet or sour?

Personally, I'm finding that I like to sit in the middle of my idea-banyan and marvel at it, full of awe and nerves at the sheer magnitude of the human imagination. It reminds me that the struggle is worth it, because the struggle is what it takes to get those roots on the ground and to keep on walking over all the earth.