Clarion Write-a-Thon & Typewriters

Every year, Clarion UCSD hosts a write-a-thon to raise money for scholarships to their writing workshop. These funds (as well as the substantial Susan C. Petrey scholarship from Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc.) were the only reason I could afford to attend, so I participate every year, though I don’t know many people who have the funds to donate to such things.

Of course, money is what the write-a-thon is really all about, but since that is beyond my control, I concentrate on the writing. This year, I hope to make a much better showing on the word-count front than I did last year. The goal is 42,000 words–one thousand a day for six weeks. Easy to do when you’re working on a novel or novella, but sometimes a problem if you’re hoping to fill those weeks with short stories. At least, that’s how it is for me. I go through sections of silence followed by bursts of activity.

It is popular to say that serious writers must treat writing like a 9-5 job, which is advice I find almost as repugnant as a 9-5 job, but it is right insofar as it encourages you to cultivate the habit of writing in your everyday life. Habit is a supremely powerful tool. When I push through the first few days on a novel and break into the daily routine of 3-4 hours of work, it is like jumping onto the roof of a moving train and falling off three states away seemingly instantaneously. Three to five days of hard work finding the habit, then you blink and it’s three months later with a novel in your hands. Perhaps this only happens to me because I have no life outside of writing.

In any case, the eternal enemy of the good habit is the bad habit, and the latter for me is the hell we call the internet. I would truly hate to know what percentage of my waking life I have spent on the internet. It is hard to say when I fell out of love with this wretched place and realized it was toxic and draining, but now that I know how bad it is, it is hard to break sixteen years of habit. After using various productivity apps and blocking tools to try to push the internet out of my writing space, I realized that my internet habit had poisoned computer screens in general for me. When I sit down at the computer, my brain is ready to jump like a squirrel from outrage to outrage, tweet to tweet, meme to meme, infuriating article to infuriating article, dumbass to jackass to Facebook. Screens are ruined for me. They are the brain killer. I had to escape the screen.

At the risk of being an insufferable fucking hipster, I made my escape, at least for writing. I bought an electric typewriter. A Smith-Corona Coronet Automatic 12, to be exact.

an electric typewriter on a desktop
my beautiful late-60s/early 70s typewriter

It uses a cheap cloth ribbon and sounds like a World War II battlefield. I love it. Every day since I’ve gotten it (and fixed the bent parts and cleaned it) I’ve hammered away for a good 3-4 hours first thing in the morning. It is glorious. The machine’s only purpose is for writing. When I sit in front of it, all I can do is write. When I walk by it, it stares at me, inviting me to write. When I think of it, I hear the clack of the keys as the hammers hit, the clang of the bell, the clack of the carriage as I smack that giant POWER RETURN button and it hurtles back into position. I even love the smell of its 1960s motor heating up as it perpetually spins the belts that drive everything (and isn’t that an incredible feat of engineering?). It has PRESENCE.

A kind of digital typewriter--basically a keyboard with a tiny calculator screen attached
Alphasmart Neo2

Before resorting to the typewriter, I did try to be reasonable. I bought one of these suckers, which apparently were used by certain schools to teach typing in the late nineties, and have a large following of writers who prefer them for distraction-free writing. I did like it quite a bit, at least in theory, but all I did with it was type some random thoughts, then toss it aside and never pick it up again. One problem is the screen. It is too small, for one thing–I need to see the paragraph shape–but also it feels too much like I’m playing with a calculator to waste time in the back of a high school math class. Worst of all, it lacks PRESENCE. It is not especially large, and it is so light that it feels like a toy. Set it on a dark desktop and you might not even notice it sitting there. It lacks the seriousness I attach to the endeavor of writing. (Note that this isn’t an insult to those for whom it works. I’m only talking about the way my self-destructive brain responds to things.)

I do still think the Neo2 might prove useful for writing. Once I’ve typed a manuscript and marked it up with red ink, I’ll need to retype it into the computer–and if the calculator screen of the Neo2 will allow me to put off the poisonous internet-screen of the monitor for one more step, I will happily accept that help.

Anyway. Give money to Clarion if you can and feel like it, and write however works for you.