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Looking Away

By Paige Bonnivier Hassall

“I know what I want for my birthday this year.”

My daughter is a decisive girl, well attuned to her own tastes. Last year, as she was turning eleven, it was elephants. I sponsored an orphaned baby elephant for her through a conservation organization a friend directed me to online. I bought her some books on elephants, and (reluctantly, because I am growing weary of possessions) some elephant figurines.

Lydia’s passion for elephants persists, but her twelfth birthday brought a different request: She wanted a typewriter.

When I was twelve, long before cable TV and the Internet, one of my slender links to the world beyond rural Indiana’s cornfields and bowling alleys was an occasional trip to the Tippecanoe Mall. There, I knew, my book-loving mom could be persuaded to extravagance at Walden’s. To pass a quiet hour in the stacks of that store and leave with an armful of my very own books brought hope that I was not pining alone in the world for beauty and truth. I dreamed that something I would one day write might find its way onto those bookstore shelves. For me, publication would mean much more than recognition of the fact that I could give shape to thoughts in writing: It would vindicate my sensitivity and idealism, which, when they revealed themselves at school like a shameful glimpse of an undergarment, elicited eye-rolling laughter from my petite, blonde, cheerleading peers.

Lydia’s actual birthday slipped past us in the chaos of mid-May, but in the end, she wound up with not one, but two typewriters, each of them connected in some way to one of her grandmothers.

The older model typewriter we stumbled on while on a little family pilgrimage to Amherst, Massachusetts. Mom had been an English major at UMass when I was born, and my parents had brought me home to a small apartment adjacent to the cemetery where Emily Dickinson is buried. I grew up with a fabled notion of having begun life so near literary greatness, and I wanted to initiate my kids into this bit of lore.

It was evening by the time we checked into the Lord Jeff. Cranky with hunger, we made our way across the Common to North Pleasant Street, where student hangouts alternated disappointingly with drugstores and dry cleaners, and the presence of a panhandler compounded our frustration with guilt.

And then, suddenly, a small, plate-glass storefront window caught our collective eye: It was filled with typewriters.

Vintage typewriters have become a popular design motif of late, turning up in wrapping paper, jewelry, household decorative items, and website graphics, evoking a kind of off-grid, slow-food mysticism. My daughter’s newfound obsession with them appealed to my vanity. Her love of elephants is a tribute to her dad, who worked in the bush in Botswana for several years before I met him, and who loved Africa deeply. A passion and knack for writing are traits our daughter gets from me.

We returned to Amherst Typewriter the next day and met Bob Green, the owner, who refurbishes everything in his broad inventory to fully working condition and delights in seeing young people discover the history and sensory experiences of older machines. The really classic models, 1920s desktop monsters with chrome keys and iron frames like ballast for a steam-punk yacht, run north of $700. Bob guided us to a lovely portable model. The keys were not chrome, but they were round, the frame smaller, but still metal, solid and black. Mom and I split the $400 price tag and arranged for Bob to ship us the machine. It was an extravagance, but I was perhaps even more delighted than Lydia. This machine was the tool of a writer.

I have made fitful starts at writing fiction over the years, but, until two years ago, I was always stymied by the gap between what I thought I was capable of writing, and what would wind up on the page. In my mind, “real writing” was a grand act of creation, a sweeping gesture igniting the page with a roiling Milky Way of breathtaking prose. Instead, I filled pages with the cheap tinsel of pat banality, or over-wrought self-indulgence, or often, to my horror, an improbable combination of both.

Then several things happened.

In March of 2013, my ex-husband died of a brain tumor. His life, which he had longed to spend painting and making music and returning to Africa, was cut short, too much of it having slipped away in his dutiful pursuit of a career in the oil industry. I know he wanted our children to grow up knowing there was more. Pursuing my writing was suddenly less theoretical and self-indulgent, more something I owed to his memory and to our kids.

As I worked to reimagine myself as a writer, I used the Internet to seek out concrete ways to navigate this path. One of the first and most life-changing resources I stumbled on that summer was an event with the inelegant title of “NaNoWriMo” (short for “National Novel Writing Month”, http://nanowrimo.org/about), an annual challenge to write a 50,000-word “novel” in the month of November. I signed up and soon learned that, while 50k words in 30 days is a tall order, it is perfectly attainable for anyone who is determined enough to make a few small sacrifices during that month. Participants curtail social commitments, get up a little earlier, stay up a little later, write through their lunch breaks—in short, whatever it takes to find the time to make it happen. Success also depends on faithfully using the exercise for its intended purpose: You can’t write that much that quickly by going back and fine-tuning or re-writing anything. The idea is, for that one month, to “turn off the inner editor,” and just get the word count. I don’t exaggerate when I say this changed my writing life. Tinsel? NaNo encourages you to peel the paper off the silver crayon and rub it sideways across the page. Whatever you do during NaNo is good enough, as long as you hit that number.

It’s crazy and exhilarating, and it puts you in touch with other writers to whatever degree you want it to. There are many, many forums on the website, as well as local groups that meet for encouragement and “write ins.” And if you show up and do what you committed to do, at the end of November, you have a whole bunch of pages of slightly shimmery prose, and maybe the bright seed of a plot.

Which brings me to the other essential piece of my development as a writer over the past two years. Once I could say out loud, “I have about fifty-thousand words towards my first novel,” I had legitimate entrée into various writing classes and workshops. The accountability of NaNo had gotten me past the first hurdle, and I knew that accountability would be critical to my maintaining forward momentum. I started with an online course on outlining through Writer’s Digest before discovering the offerings of Inprint, (a Houston writers’ studio) and the Writer’s League of Texas, among others. At this point, I can comfortably say that I have joined the ranks of the writing workshop junkie.

I have learned so many useful and inspiring things from the talented and generous instructors under whom I have had the privilege to work on my craft. It’s hard work, but it’s joyful, too, playing with pacing and chronology, figuring out what to reveal when, learning what must be on the page and how far to trust the reader. I have been blessed with excellent cohorts in my classes, writers who represent all kinds of genres and modes of publication, and I have learned something from every single one of them.

And, less joyfully, I have learned some of the disheartening realities of the present-day business of writing. Of course, this really isn’t anything new: Artists of all kinds have always had to adjust to the tastes and requirements of their patrons and public. Still, it’s easy sometimes to feel as if your chances of being picked up by an agent or publisher depend on adherence to a fixed and seemingly arbitrary set of rules, the breaking of which will at best be akin to walking around writing conference wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with the word “rookie!”

  • Open with a “hook.”
  • Get right into the story.
  • No adverbs.
  • No clever verbs of attribution.
  • Minimize description.
  • Maximize dialogue.
  • Hit those plot points.
  • Know your genre.
  • Hone that pitch.

Further, we are exhorted to strike everything from the page that doesn’t advance the plot. When I contemplate the business side of writing, I can’t help sometimes but wonder: Am I writing fiction, or playing baseball? When did literature become something to be read aloud by a sportscaster? And is my daughter doomed to inherit this prosaic world?

Lydia’s more modern typewriter was my mother-in-law’s. It dates to about the mid-century, and has been maintained in pristine condition. She gave it to Lydia when we went to visit her in England in July, and my daughter promptly wound a sheet of paper onto the carriage and bent her head to write a poem. She wrote, deeply and innocently, of the elusiveness of beauty and truth, describing fragile epiphanies across three stanzas, each of which ended with the refrain: “And this, only when you look away.”

She carried that piece of paper around off and on for several days, doodling on it with colored pens, folding it into an origami balloon, and finally losing it on one of our outings to a local castle or pub, no one could remember which.

I grieve the loss of that poem. And yet, part of its beauty is in its transience. She may write another version of it, but that small bright flame burned once and is gone, forever free from rules.

Author:

Paige Bonnivier Hassall has a BA in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and too many post-baccalaureate credits to count. A Texas-certified secondary ELA teacher and inveterate traveler, she lives outside Houston with her two kids and three dogs. She is at work on her debut novel.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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