When was the last time you wrote something substantive — a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc. — by hand? Could you ever imagine returning to a pre-keyboard era?
That (well, potentially) opened the door to talk about something substantive — about the nature of creativity, perhaps, or maybe technology and its evolution. Or even growth and change if you were feeling ambitious. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything to say about any of those — all I could think was ‘two weeks ago’ and I couldn’t conceive of a way to make that remotely interesting, even to myself.
So I am not writing about that.
But I got to thinking. In particular, thought back to high school and the various teachers who tried (with limited success) to instil in me an appreciation for the written word and an ability to create it. There was Mr. S, who put every piece of ‘creative writing’ I ever creatively wrote into a folder. (I graduated with an empty folder.) There was the other Mr. S who habitually wore leisure suits; every morning he would take his jacket off and hang it on his desk chair. Every Friday he would gather up five jackets and take them home. There was Mrs. W who was short and almost comically addicted to nicotine. There was the other one who was so memorable that I have no memories whatsoever of him or her. (On the extremely remote chance you’re reading this, sorry. Not your fault.)
Anyway, all of them tried to impress on me the importance of process, preparedness and probably other stuff that I’ve forgotten. And high in the list of important things was a rigorous, thorough and well-thought-out Outline.
Part of the reasons for that was technology, of course. When all you had was dead trees to work with, editing, revising and modifying was laborious. Preparation (and that included, I was told, The Outline) was clearly a good idea.
Fast forward a few years. In my final year as an undergraduate ‘we’ were encouraged to enter a competition. (Well, the smart kids at the front of the class were encouraged. The dead weight at the back? Not so much.) The challenge was to write five thousand words on the subjects of Science, Myth and Truth. Piece of cake. For somebody else, maybe; I had no plans to enter. It looked like a lot of work (writing is hard and this looked like it called for the dreaded Outline), I was busy as hell and heck, I wasn’t comfortable with writing about anything with a capital letter.
Plans do change, though. The weekend before entries were due happened, against all odds, to be free. Free of assignments. Free of deadlines. Free of commitments. Free of household chores. Even gaming was cancelled. It was unprecedented.
So I was at a loss for something to do. (These days I’d just nap but back then I didn’t really need to. And our TV was broken.) So a crazy thought crossed my mind — maybe I could just knock off five thousand words on the philosophical linkage between Science and Truth before dinner Sunday.
But I had nothing better to do so I gathered up some primary sources (they were primary largely because they were short enough to read in the time I had available to me), some secondary sources and borrowed a blue typewriter from the guy that lived across the hall. (I had a typewriter but it was gray — clearly the wrong colour for an essay of this sort as I’m sure you’ll agree.) With no outline, with no plan, with not a shred of an idea about Truth or any other word-with-a-capital-letter I started typing.
After five or six gallons of tea (taken internally) and only slightly less correction fluid (not taken internally) I had a worn-out typewriter ribbon and a headache but I also had a stack of paper (covered in words, even) and a modest sense of accomplishment. I didn’t expect much when I submitted it and quite clearly neither did they. (“You’re submitting an essay? How unexpected, er, wonderful.”) And as long as we’re talking ‘unexpected’, after the judges had, um, judged, guess who was in second place?
I ignored every single rule of creative writing, I dashed off twenty pages of unplanned, unscripted, completely extemporaneous prose on a subject I knew nothing about, I did no editing beyond fixing the typos (well, some of them), there were no revisions, there was no revision control. There was no Outline. And yet, it paid the rent for a month.
Take that, Mrs. W.