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Writing is like Fixing a Typewriter

My mind has been working on this a bit since I got my project. I’ve got the carriage moving consistently when I type, and the keys all work. It’s been a long hard road getting to that point. And someone who knew even the basics of typewriter maintenance could have achieved all I have and more in less than an afternoon.

Which is my first point:

It takes skill.

I was not born knowing how to repair Underwood No. 6s. The last week or two would have been easier if I had been, but I wasn’t. This wasn’t a talent issue, but a skill issue. I lacked the skill to complete the repairs. I had to work to increase my skills. The more I’ve worked, the easier it has become.

Writing is exactly the same, though with a longer learning curve. It’s skill I’m not born with, but skill I can learn.

Read about it all you want, learning a skill is in the doing.

I could spend all day every day reading the scanned Underwood manuals I’ve found and the forums where people discuss minutiae of typewriter repair, but until I disassembled the thing and got oil all over me, and blood all over it, I didn’t understand it.

Similarly, I could read about writing all day. There are more blogs devoted to how to write than any one person could hope to read. Yet they’re all out there. And they have some good ideas. But until you delve into your own writing, get it all over you and bleed into it, you aren’t going to understand it. It’s the difference between theoretical knowledge and applied knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is great for academics.

No one cares about your half-finished project as much as you, so you better really care.

Friends have asked about my typewriter project as I’ve gone through it. And I watched their eyes glaze over as I described the minor victories I had for the day. I knew they were only minor victories (‘hey, I understand which screws I need to unscrew now!’), but there have been days where the minor victories were the only things to show for hours of work. To get to even those kinds of victories, I had to spend hours tinkering with things I didn’t quite understand. If I had stopped caring, I would have quit. And no one, other than my wife, would have blamed me.

Writing a novel is the same. I don’t let myself talk about a novel in progress, but if I did, I would bore you to tears with the minor moves I make each day. (Today, I had a character realize he doesn’t understand his situation and nothing else!) I have to care about my work, because if I don’t, I’ll quit. If I quit, few will blame me (maybe my wife). After all, writing is hard work no one really understands anyway. I have to push myself to care, so that I can make a work people find worthy of caring about.

Even setbacks teach us something, if we are willing to learn.

The carriage return that wasn’t moving for awhile, now moves too much. I got the tension belt wound too tightly, and every so often the carriage jumps 10-15 spaces after a letter. That’s feedback I need in order to get it truly tuned. I then knew I needed to spray WD-40 along some key components and dial down the tension.

I try all sorts of things when I write my first draft. I make implausible leaps, I turn characters on a dime, I tried odd accenting and voices. I don’t do those things and then leave them alone. I examine them later and decide what worked, and more importantly, what didn’t. Once I know what didn’t work (Most everything at this stage), I try to understand why it didn’t work.

There’s more. I could probably hammer this metaphor to death, but I’ve learned a lot about typewriters, and writing, in the last couple of weeks. I’ll keep on failing and learning for months and years to come.

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