By Brenda Miller
Yesterday my computer broke down—my traveling computer, an ancient PowerBook 170. It had been making strange noises for a while—the computer’s equivalent of a portentous cough—but I blithely continued tapping away at the keys until the poor thing let out a death rattle and seized up. When I tried to restart, the hard drive spat and whirred, then feebly offered up a blinking question mark. Sorry, it seemed to wince, so sorry, what is it you want from me?
Losing my computer felt a little like losing my mind. For over twenty years I’d composed my work at the keyboard, and so I’d come to see my writing—even in nascent stages—embodied in clean fonts, precise and authorial. The posture of my hands on the keys had become the stance of writing itself, a prerequisite for language to begin its metamorphosis into meaning. Often I listen to Chopin as I write, the études in particular, and in my more fanciful moments I’ve likened my hands to those of a pianist: that same fluid movement across the keys, teasing out music from the letters at my command.
The enticements of the typewriter came early for me. I remember, as a young child, sitting at the kitchen counter with my mother’s Remington in front of me, the “Learn Typing in 10 Easy Lessons” flipped open at my side and propped on its vertical stand. I felt for the small raised dot on the “F” and “J” keys that would align my fingers and typed “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back” over and over, by touch alone, until the line seemed to appear on the paper of its own accord. The more I typed it, the more the sentence generated a hypnotic beat, becoming a mantra to unlock all the arcane secrets of communication.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back.
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back.
When I mastered this line I felt I now truly controlled the alphabet and could write anything my heart desired.
I wanted to be as good a typist as my mother, a woman who could type over one hundred words a minute with no errors. Before my mother was my mother, she had worked as a secretary for “Seventeen” magazine in Manhattan; she often told me, wistfully, about dressing up to take the subway to her job from Brooklyn. I’m not sure what she had to type at our house, but watching her was like watching an athlete in her prime, every muscle moving in concert with no wasted motion, no superfluous gesture. She rarely faltered, and when she did even her dexterity with the whiteout wand seemed world-class, a vision to behold. She leaned close to the carriage, brush held lightly between thumb and index finger; she swiped errors away so deftly they left no trace.
I loved everything about typing: the attainable goals of each lesson, each flip of the page in my lesson book a tangible marker of my progress. I loved the crank of the paper into the roller and the clack of the keys against the ribbon; sometimes I typed lines and lines of nonsense just to make this particularly joyful noise. When I ripped the sheet of paper from the typewriter I could run my fingers along the words and feel them on the page. They looked, in an oblique way, the way words looked in the books I consumed, with a crispness I could never get from my own hand.
When I went away to college I became a journalism major, drawn, I think, not only to the field itself, but to the rooms full of clattering typewriters. The machines endowed our work with a sense of urgency: not only did the professors judge us on how well we wrote, but on how fast we could churn the stories out, banging away at the keys. When we took tests for News Writing 101, the professor strode through the room with stopwatch in hand as we sweated to pound out the lead paragraphs on car accidents, burglaries, and murders. I always did well on these tests, pulling my paper from the roller long before the others, giving myself a few moments to revel in the sound of the typewriters around me, all of them chattering away in loud, discordant harmony.
My computer no longer even blinks a question mark at me; it has retreated into sullen silence and no amount of cajoling will rouse it. I’m in northern Wyoming—the “deep west,” as someone called it at the dinner table the other night—and no one within one hundred miles deals at all with Macs. I call Apple support on the pay phone in the barn, but as we speak I can hear the technician’s tired sigh, the murmur of a physician who wants only for the family of the beloved to surrender, pull the plug, say their good-byes. But he kindly promises to send me a first-aid disk that might solve the problem. In the meantime, all I can do is wait.
So I capitulate to circumstance and get out my pen and paper. Not to say I’ve never written this way before; it’s just that I’ve come to see writing by hand as a “minor” practice, useful for scribbling notes and lists, but not for the real laborious work of creation. I take a long time choosing just the right pen for this endeavor—a Pilot Precise V7—then take my notebook outside on the deck. It’s a warm afternoon, a breeze rippling through the grasses in the fields that surround me. I write a little, I look up, I put the pen in my mouth, then lower it and write a few more words. I go on this way for about an hour, the writing itself balanced in equal measure by my gaze on a nighthawk roosting in the cottonwood tree.
I think of Sei Shonagon, a Japanese woman-in-waiting, whose “Pillow Book” records a society bound by the handwritten word. In Japanese court life, men and women corresponded and entertained one another through the exchange of poems several times a day: a messenger delivered a poem to the house, and the occupant was expected to provide an instantaneous and witty reply. Shonagon once received a letter from the Empress bound in bamboo, adorned with the branch of a flowering cherry; she penned her reply on the purple petal of a lotus flower. The outer trappings reflected the inner verse; the flowering branch emoted the declaration of love concealed in the heart of the letter. Sei Shonagon complained of those rude oafs who dared to borrow her calligraphy brush, spoiling the perfect texture of the bristles she had labored to achieve.
I can see why. Already I’ve become enamored of writing with my Pilot Precise V7, a name reminiscent of a sports car, implying that same kind of handling, that same expertise. The pen and I now have an intimate relationship, my fingers already callused a little from where they rub up against the shaft. If I write long enough I will use up the black ink in the barrel, a sign that I’ve been laboring with materials that are material: finite and expendable. The files in my computer have no such corporeality.
I feel a little like a child just now learning cursive all over again: I feel that same giddiness, that same adoration of the pen. Just the word cursive is magical; children love to say it in a whisper that implies something almost illicit. As a child, I practiced this writing diligently, all curves and connections. The air was never so hushed as when all of us eight-year-olds settled in for handwriting lessons. Tongues stuck out the corners of mouths, small brows furrowed, we leaned as close to the pages as we dared, breathing hard, sometimes dropping our heads to the cool paper and drifting to sleep there, our arms curled around our few large words.
And then one day, just as with reading, cursive became as natural as bringing a spoon to our lips, or brushing back a wayward strand of hair. I’ve heard that Talmudic scholars wrote Hebrew characters in honey for their students; after the lesson the students licked the honey off the page, ingesting the letters. Our lessons were not as sweet, but at some point our alphabet, too, suffused our bodies; we simply transformed into people who knew how to read, people who knew how to write.
The first-aid disk for my computer finally arrives by FedEx. When I put the disk into my computer, it tells me my hard drive is unreadable; I must initialize it in order to start from scratch, and this process will erase all the files stored there, files going back at least ten years, from my days in graduate school: the drafts of my failed first novel, notes for a ponderous memoir I’d abandoned, correspondence with people whose names I now hardly recognize. I know I probably have these files backed up on floppy disks at home, but I can’t be sure, and as for hard copies, well, they have probably gone the way of the trash bin in the many moves I’ve made since then.
I sit there a long time, the arrow quivering between “Initialize” and “Quit.” I finally decided to do it. I click the “Initialize” button. The computer whirls and stutters and wipes clean its own memory. For a moment I’m bereft. I lean back in my chair, my hand cupped over my heart. But in the next moment I feel an overwhelming relief, a sovereignty, as if I’ve freed myself from the weight of a barely remembered past.
The next day, my computer still does not work, though it’s been purged of all that might have been holding it back. I don’t have much time to work anyway; I’ve been asked to give a writing workshop at the local nursing home. Months earlier, I had gamely agreed, thinking I would teach spry women and men in their sixties, all eager to join in the class and write their memoirs. But when I get there I realize my students are very old, very ill, led into the room by their attendants, or pushed in by wheelchair. Some cannot speak at all or work their fingers nimbly enough to pick up a pen. They look frightened, bewildered, suspicious. We sit around a circular table, some of my students in nightgowns, others in clothes that have seen better days. Some have oxygen tanks on carts by their sides.
I want them to remember their first dwelling places, the earliest places they can remember living as children. They stare at me while I speak, as if I’m jabbering in a foreign language, but then I realized that most of them simply can’t hear me.
“We’ll draw it first,” I yell, miming the action by scribbling in the air. “Draw the first house you ever lived in.” I’ve brought crayons, and they bend to the task. Some draw very elaborate house plans, with blueprint exactness; other only a cross-hatching of lines bunched into one corner.
“Okay,” I shout. “Now pick one small detail that might have some important memories associated with it. Let’s write about that memory.”
One of the nurses passes around a vase full of pens, all with huge silk daisies attached to their tops. These flowers—red, yellow, blue—bob on wire stalks as the residents who are able pick them up set them to paper. The room grows quiet, and then we are all writing with flowers, the petals nodding as if in a gentle wind.
After several minutes they put down these lovely pens and tell us what they wrote. One woman wrote about sneaking into the barn when she was five years old and starting up her father’s Model-T, then doing it again and again despite the punishments and threats. Her eyes light with glee as her attendant reads out her story. Another woman, Gladys, tells me she had been given a certificate for penmanship when she was in grammar school, but now look, and I look and see nothing but a page full of perfect cursive, neat and straight, betraying no evidence of her palsied hand. Another woman writes about spading the garden with her mother—not the produce in the garden itself, but the work of preparing the ground.
They begin to laugh as they listen to each other’s stories, the air in the room finally lifting a little from its medicinal haze. The flowered pens lie limp and motionless on the table, their work at this moment done. In a little while it will be time to gather them up, put them away in a vase where they will create a bouquet so extravagant it seems to give off perfume.
Brenda Miller is a Centrum artist/faculty member in writing. This past year, in February and June, 2010, she led sold-out workshops in creative nonfiction. To learn more about her work, please visit her website. This article was originally published in Centrum’s Experience magazine.