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The Workplace, Wet or Dry

Aug 13, 2010 in Books, Guest Posts

When I first began to write as a kid, what I had in the way of an office was a notepad and a ballpoint pen and any place that was flat where I could work. This was when I was writing entirely for fun, without any knowledge of how something was marketed or sold, or that I was in need of a study or an office.
One problem I had with that method was that my handwriting was akin to dipping an arthritic chicken’s feet in ink and turning it loose on the page. In high school, I took typing. When I’m asked what I think was the most important part of my education, my answer is simple. Typing class in high school and dropping out of college.
After learning to type, my life was never quite the same. Now I could write a story more speedily, more clearly, and have it look like it would look in a book or magazine. Keep in mind, now, I’m talking about actual typewriters, where you rolled the paper into it, typed, and corrected with Wite-Out, and had to have carbons and an extra sheet of paper behind the carbon to make an impression, and therefore a copy, of your deathless prose.
The Wite-Out was messy, and the carbon pages slipped, so that you could finish an entire page, only to discover that you didn’t have an exact copy at all, that a sentence was typed over another, or that the paper had slipped in such a way that it appeared to have been typed at an angle.
Frustrating.
Also, each day I ended up with a complete trash can full of discards. steam cloud . Ah, the good old days. Who’s kidding who?

My wife always claims that I married her for her typewriter. It’s our running joke. When we met, she had a Montgomery Ward manual typewriter, and I wrote my first articles and stories that I sent to market on it. As for my office, once again, it was any clear space available. Usually, the kitchen table.
Eventually, I graduated to my own desk in a corner of a miniature living room in our rented house. From there I had a view of the kitchen and a hole in the roof, through which the rain seeped in with a gurgling sound. Fortunately, the hole was over the sink, and the water ran right into it. There were a few times I imagined it as a waterfall. How’s that for handy, and how’s that for a view?
Later I upgraded to a Montgomery Ward electric, and wrote so much, and pounded the keys so savagely, that I had to replace the typewriter every year. My wife worked at Montgomery Ward for a while, so we bought them with her discount.
In time we purchased a home and turned a small bedroom into my library and office. This was perfect, until my second child, my daughter, was born. Kasey’s crib went into my office, beside my desk, and I wrote there during the day, and she slept in the crib at night. I was a house dad, so she spent a lot of time in the crib while I worked. She was a heavy sleeper, unlike her big brother, Keith, who interrupted me every twenty minutes. Guyana . But, somehow, between the two of them, I managed to write a number of novels, short stories, articles, and the like.
Then, one day, the baby supplies expanded, seemed almost to creep into my office/library, and without even realizing it was happening, I was out of there, and my office became a rickety desk stuck in the corner of our bedroom. It wobbled when I wrote. There, I managed to write a novel, The Drive-In, and another, Cold in July, back to back in about four months.
Then we had a few good strokes of fortune, movie sales and screenplay jobs, and we were able to move to a huge three-story house where the entire bottom floor was my study and library. It was wonderful. I wrote there for years. It was Eden.
Austin/Dam Flood, wreck of School House (LOC)But then, in came the snake. There was a back up in the water pipes, the carpet was ruined, and a few items were destroyed. We cleaned it up as best we could, and in the meantime much of what had been free space became space for more books, manuscripts, and such. I glanced up one day to discover I was working in not so much an office as a warehouse that looked a bit like the huge one in Raiders of the Lost Ark that contains all the strange artifacts of the world.
Books went into storage, we repaired the bottom floor, then we brought the books out of storage and began putting them back into the library. In the meantime, we moved the work area to a small bedroom upstairs. site down This was to be temporary until the bottom floor was finished. My work space was now a small desk and an overhang of wire racks from which dangled manuscripts and notes and contracts. I wrote several books and two screenplays there.
When the bottom floor was finished and looking quite spiffy, a water hose attached to the washer on the second floor promptly snapped while we were out for the day. Returning, we discovered the entire second floor was ruined, and the floor below was even worse. Two floors done in by one broken hose. Water was ankle deep on both floors, and it was seeping through the boards in the ceiling to the bottom floor with such consistency that it was like standing outside in a summer rain. Worse, it took a while to get the constant blast of water turned off.
For me, the killer wasn’t the house repairs, it was the loss of three thousand books, many of them signed by authors I admired, authors who were friends, and, in some cases, sadly, now deceased. That was one of the most depressing days of my life.
The next day, while my daughter, wife, and son-in-law moved wet books, and stacked boxes, and packed ruined and saved goods, I, having deadlines, wrote at a little desk in the bedroom on a wet floor. I was so in need of getting away from the reality of events, I actually wrote two short stories in one day and sold them both. Thank goodness. The insurance and mortgage company, owing me more than sixty thousand dollars in damages, turned out to be slow, so every drop in the bucket was appreciated.
Later, the room where I was working had to have the floor ripped up, due to the water damage, so I moved my computer upstairs to the third floor. Since we were living on the top floor, and walking from the stairs to the front door on rafters, like pigeons, all of the goods that we needed on a daily basis were upstairs with us. This meant every time we turned around we stepped on each other, or the dog. Buffy the Biscuit Eater, our hound, had also moved into our room and slept in our bed at night and looked confused a lot of the time.
My office became a combination of window platform and a board from a ruined bookshelf, which I propped under the computer as a place for my keyboard. Even now, below me, hammers slam and saws buzz, and there are all manner of compressors and snapping sounds I can’t actually associate with anything I recognize outside of a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Here, on this board, I have written a tremendous amount of work in the past two months, and it occurred to me that, though a nice place to work — an office, a library — is good and maybe even inspiring, any place that allows a writer to practice his craft is pretty damn good as well.
I don’t feel any different with my keyboard on this bookcase board when I’m writing than I did when I was writing on my huge desk in my bottom-floor office or, for that matter, when I was a kid with a composition notebook and a ballpoint pen. I’m lost in the world I’m creating; I’m meditating in my own way.

It’s not the place. It’s the story. And most of all, it’s the writer who tells the story, and how he tells it.
Would-be writers often tell me how they’re waiting for the right time or a good place to work, and I think that’s all well and good, but most of them have been waiting a long, long time, and it is my guess they will continue to wait. They don’t have the drive, the real urge to be a writer.
My circumstances, not nearly as bad as those of many but certainly an irritating inconvenience and a painful personal loss, have not kept me from doing what I love to do best; have not kept me from putting beans on the table with my craft, and on good days my art.
It’s the writing that matters. And sometimes, it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of that, even if I do look forward to a repaired house, a big desk, and a roomy office. But if I should never have that, as long as I can find a place to write, I will.
That’s what being a writer is about.

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16 Responses »

  1. Great post, Joe. And boy, do I remember White-Out. When I first starting writing short horror stories (inspired by guys like you, David J. Schow, Clive Barker) I used a plastic electric typewriter and whatever paper I could scrounge up. So a bunch of my first drafts are on bright blue scrap paper full of puffy White-out correction clouds.

    I admit, they’re not the most hardboiled-looking documents ever…

  2. Excellent post.

    When I was a kid I remember my mom bringing work home along with this IBM Selectric they loaned her. State of the art. Like a freakin’ lawnmower. Hold a key too long and the letter would repeat along the page with this sound like a machinegun. I’d write on the backs of Xeroxed scrap memos from her office.

    Took me a year to figure out it had built-in White-Out. Just as well. Never worked right, anyway.

    Man, the offenses to literature I wrote on that thing.

  3. I started on a typewriter. That was in the days when I thought my writing was unlikely to make any money and I had my family to consider. I next got a word processor, and life improved a little. The computer happened very late in my writing career, because I was still not making any money. In time I added printers and copiers and a scanner. Not making much money yet, but it was a tax write-off. 🙂 One can indulge oneself with that excuse. Since much of the process has gone electronic, I rarely need my copier, these days. Work changes, but there’s still not much money.

    Apart from the nuts and bolts, I work in a colorful office with red-lacquered second-hand furniture, book cases full of books, paintings and book covers on yellow wallpapered walls, windows overlooking a tree-shaded neighborhood, worn oriental rugs and a dog basket plus aged dachshund on the floor, and piles and piles of messy notes surrounding my workspace and every surface in the room.

  4. Joe, you’re just lucky you were selling the whole way. How’d you like to go through all that crap without a sale and still hold your nose to the grindstone? Happy for you. We all need to hear the success stories.

    I was a jock in high school and out, so I dropped typing after the second marking period, even with my teacher pleading with me to stick it out. It was the first class and I was too sleepy and tired from the previous day’s workouts, so I learned only a s d f j k l ;…I think. I still type like I have on boxing gloves.

    But if, because you’re a writer, you forsake other things to a degree you shouldn’t–and wouldn’t if you had to do it all over again–and, instead, experience things like walking 50 yards to use the bathroom because the plumbing’s gone and you can’t afford to fix it, bathe in water so rusty your hair and clothes turn red, work in the darkness by candle light, like some kind of Abe Lincoln(who at least had an excuse, and your wife walks into the room where you sit at the table in the flickering light and asked, “For God’s sake, what in hell are you doing?” and you answer, “Writing. What else?” then anything less is a day at the beach.

    Yeah, those were the good old days. And I’m happy as hell they’re gone. The question is: would I do it again? There’s a sick feeling inside me that says maybe I would, like I’ve got some kind of learning disability.

    And that worries the living hell out of me.

  5. Joe, thanks for writing this. I never get tired of hearing about other people’s writing process. I once wrote a story in the bowels of a moving armored personnel carrier. It was published in a literary journal and was one of my first sales. You are right on. It’s the story.

  6. ‘you only married me for my typewriter’ is about the best reason i’ve ever heard for matrimony.

  7. As always, Lansdale never fails to inspire. With the amount of material you’ve written, I wouldn’t be surprised if you wrote stuff while riding underneath a freight car or atop one of those bucking bronco things I imagine they have in every bar in Texas.

  8. I’ll echo Duane on this one. When I first started sending out horror stories I’d fumble with carbon paper and managed to waste entire bottles of white out fixing my mistakes (plus I was clumsy, so I’d knock the bottle over fifty present of the time) thank god for computers!
    And I married my wife for her hand me down HP.
    Great post!

  9. And don’t forget the perfectly typed page with a perfect mirror copy on the back, and the nice clean second sheet on the other side of the inadvertently reversed carbon.

  10. Great stuff. I remember those days so well. I wrote several books on a pull-down shelf fastened to one of the walls in our bathroom. These days I sometimes wish the toilet was still that handy . . .

  11. What a lovely post! Such a good reminder that it’s the writing and the urge to write that counts. I found this a great booster. Thanks.

  12. Loved your article. It reminded me of growing up totally convinced that I was going to be a great writer like “Socrates”. Yeah, you read that correctly, Socrates. Don’t know why, just thought he was a writer when I was a kid. Hey, I was close. The rest of your article struck some familiar chords also. For instance, whenever I found enough paper to write on, and a pen, both at the same time, creation really did become a place of curves, without a single flat surface anywhere, or at least not in my house. But anyway, what I wanted to say was, thank-you for reminding me of those times that I suspect all really passionate writers have gone through at one time or another, and wouldn’t think of changing even for a moment, even if they could. I like the way you sound on the written page, so now I have to locate and read an entire work, after-which, you’ll probably find yourself bothered by me yet again. Take care, and keep writing, lots.

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