The Benefits of Typing

California Typewriter is a 2016 documentary about typewriters, named for a typewriter repair and servicing shop in Berkeley, California, that went out of business just before the pandemic. In the documentary, you’ll see people shopping for typewriters, servicing typewriters, and fixing typewriters. You’ll see Tom Hanks’ collection of typewriters. You’ll see John Mayer writing songs on his typewriter and Sam Shepard writing plays on his. By the time you finish watching, you’ll long for a typewriter to call your own.

I recommend watching the documentary–it’s a wonderful exploration of the mystique and whimsy of typewriters. With the loss of typewriters as a mainstream writing implement, we’ve lost other things as well. But I wanted to share with you two sets of clips from the documentary because they go to the benefits of typing versus keyboarding for a writer.

This clip in particular is valuable for writers–John Mayer discusses the ways typing has transformed his songwriting process, in part by preventing him from editing as he writes:

I also love this clip of Sam Shepard discussing his reasons for using a typewriter. An actor, playwright, poet, and short story writer, Shepard has been one of my favorite writers for close to forty years. I named my blog, “The Write Stuff,” in honor of the first movie I saw him in. In this clip, he talks about the way typing is more artistic than keyboarding–picture the splash of ink on the page. I love that he also validates an old writing saw we hear often, which is to stop writing while you’re hot and save something for the next day. From Shepard’s mouth, it becomes more gospel than cliché:

You can read more about the documentary at its website, californiatypewritermovie.com. The documentary is available for purchase, but it is also streaming on Peacock and, I’m sure, other streaming services. It has a 100% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes and an 83% audience score. You can also read about the closure of California Typewriter in Berkeleyside: Berkeley’s California Typewriter, star of documentary, closes shop.

5 Great Keyboard Getaways

So, I’m aware of the fact that I often seem to be advising writers not to write. But it only seems that way–all the things I encourage you to do as a writer will ultimately feed your writing, even if that means taking a break from writing so your subconscious brain can do its share of the work. Still writing.

Today, I want to share five ideas for writing that get you away from your computer screen and keyboard.

  1.  Take a walk. Or listen to music. Or paint a picture. Or take some nature photographs. I give this kind of advice so often, you probably already guessed it, so I may as well list it first and get it out of the way. I used to be such a hard taskmaster when it came to my own writing. I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of all the subconscious writing tools my brain has to offer. And my writing suffered for it. My subconscious brain is much more creative than I am. These days, when I’m stuck, I don’t try to force it. I set the writing aside and take a walk. I’ve had great mentors in my life who’ve taught me that taking a walk or engaging in other creative endeavors or doing a mindless activity like washing the dishes is writing. Our brains need time to work out those plot twists and mind-blowing story endings, without the stress and pressure that stifles creativity. When I am working too hard and not taking breaks, I notice it now. The writing isn’t as good, and it doesn’t come as easily.
  2. Write the Old-Fashioned Way. Grab a notebook and a pencil and outline your novel or scene or story on paper. Do it away from your computer and your desk–sit in the comfy chair in your reading nook, or better yet, sit outside in the sunshine. This is a great way to brainstorm too. Not sure how your story is going to end? Brainstorm many possible endings in a stream-of-consciousness way. You may be surprised with the brilliant ideas that come out of nowhere. Not sure what your character wants? Write a character sketch. If you dare, start writing your story or novel by hand. In a 2020 study, professor Audrey van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that “the brain … is much more active when writing by hand than when typing on a keyboard.” She writes that: “The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing.” (Why writing by hand makes kids smarter.) You might also consider printing out your keyboarded pages for reading or editing.
  3. Use Print Research Materials. Twyla Tharp suggests that artists have a box or some sort of container for each project they are working on. I love this idea and am just beginning to use it. This means that, instead of bookmarking all my research materials on the computer (although I’m doing that too), I’m printing some of the materials out so that I can read them in a more relaxed (and creatively productive) way, with a highlighter and a pen nearby. Then I toss them in the project box so they’re available when I need them. Depending on your research needs, consider visiting the library and checking out books to read for your research, instead of spending all that time on the internet which, for me, ultimately has me going down a rabbit hole that has nothing to do with what I’m working on.
  4. Try Dictating Your Work. Consider writing your book (or parts of it) by dictating the words into a recording device. Our ideas begin in our minds, and like handwriting, speaking them out loud has its benefits, especially for writing dialogue. It activates different parts of the brain, stimulates spontaneous thought and ideas, and increases creativity. Try dictating hands-free while driving a long distance, gardening, or doing chores around the house, then listen back later and see what you’ve come up with. Another idea: read your printed pages aloud, or better yet, record yourself reading them and then listen back.
  5. Use a Typewriter. Like handwriting, typing offers benefits the computer keyboard doesn’t. Author Natalie Goldberg advises that “[W]riting is really a physical activity.” In Writing Down the Bones, she writes, “I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.” Many writers swear by the typewriter. John Mayer says it keeps him from editing himself when he’s writing a song. Sam Shepard says it’s more creatively satisfying, feeling the key hit the page and seeing the ink sink into the paper. I’ll go into more detail about typewriting next week.

5 Things I Learned About Writing from AC/DC

When I was 19, I was way into AC/DC. I wouldn’t date a guy who didn’t own Highway to Hell on vinyl or cassette. Not because I was a spoiled brat, although I suppose I was at 19. But because the album meant so much to me. If we didn’t connect on this most basic level, what was the point? I’m no longer 19, but I’m still an AC/DC fan, and I have been for more years than I care to count and through untold ups and downs.

I was thinking about this the other morning–what hooked me about this band and this album? What could I learn from that? And how could I harness the power of AC/DC’s effect on 19-year-old me in my writing?

I still own Highway to Hell on vinyl, so I listened again, and here’s what I came up with:

1. Simple does the trick. When I wanted to learn to play the bass guitar, my drummer friend Mark W. told me to start with an AC/DC song. “Their songs are so basic,” he said. American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine recently wrote: “AC/DC’s rock was minimalist–no matter how huge and bludgeoning their guitar chords were, there was a clear sense of space and restraint.” In a 2008 article for The Guardian (“Things really must be bad–AC/DC are No 1 again“), British rock critic Alexis Petridis wrote that AC/DC’s music is “wilfully basic,” a band to turn to “when the world appears on the brink of chaos.”

Listening again, Mark W. and the critics who recognize AC/DC’s intentional simplicity are right. And yet, the simple notes and chords and beats are strung together in ways that are sometimes thrilling, sometimes harsh, sometimes sexy, sometimes menacing, always charged with electricity. Always powerful. AC/DC’s songs aren’t complex or fancy, but they don’t need to be to move listeners. And writing doesn’t need to be complicated or sophisticated or grandiose to move readers.

Photo Credit: Jim Houghton

 

2. Readers are loyal. When AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott died in February of 1980, my friends and I were distraught. Our friend Cary H. rode his motorcycle in the pouring rain to Hartnell College in Salinas, California, to pull me and my best friend Kathy W. out of typing class. He wanted to break the bad news before we heard it somewhere else. We all gathered in a friend’s garage to jam all night and mourn together. We loved Bon Scott and knew no one could ever replace him, and AC/DC felt the same way.

AC/DC considered disbanding after Bon Scott’s death, but ultimately knew that’s not what Scott would have wanted. They chose a new lead singer who, Angus Young said, was not “just a perfect imitation of” Scott, but who had similar qualities and who was someone Scott had actually admired. Scott is the one who’d told them about Brian Johnson’s distinct voice, and Johnson was an Australian who embodied Scott’s spirit, as well as the band’s. They recorded Back in Black with their new vocalist, released it in the summer of 1980 with an all-black album cover, and dedicated it to Scott’s memory.

What can writers learn from this? If you’re honest with your readers, respect them, and give them what they are looking for, they will be loyal to you and will follow you wherever you go. For AC/DC, this meant fans mourned Scott, but embraced Back in Black and AC/DC’s new lead singer because they trusted AC/DC to be respectful of Scott, thoughtful about the way they moved forward, and considerate of the fans. For writers this means that, if your readers trust you, and if you respect that trust, you can try new things in your writing and lead your readers in new directions.

Photo Credit: Bridgeman Images

 

3. It’s all in the voice. The things AC/DC writes about–sex, rock and roll, flaunting convention, misbehaving, partying, being badass–aren’t all that unique. What made AC/DC special in 1979 was the band’s heavy rock guitar, courtesy of brothers Malcolm Young (rhythm) and Angus Young (lead); Bon Scott’s unique rasp and growl; Phil Rudd’s measured involvement of the kick and snare drums; Cliff Williams’ rhythmic downpicking on bass. What makes AC/DC special in 2022 is the same, except that Malcolm Young’s nephew Stevie Young has replaced him on rhythm guitar (RIP Malcolm) and the unique rasp and growl belong to Brian Johnson (RIP Bon). Scott’s and Johnson’s voices are different, but similar enough to capture the essence of what AC/DC is about.

A writer’s voice is what sets them apart, too. “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” (“Writer’s Voice: ‘Intolerance and Love in Jamaica,'” by Katherine Schulten for The New York Times.) It can take many, many years for a writer to find their voice. But with practice, it will come, and that is when the writing really takes off and becomes something special.

 

4. Writing is for the readers. Like I said, AC/DC’s song topics aren’t unique. Their songs embody the usual teenage anthems, but they encapsulate the kind of powerful calls to action that remain meaningful to us, through adulthood and beyond–no matter our ages, we remember how it felt not to be beholding to anyone or anything, and we yearn for that kind of freedom again. AC/DC gives listeners what they want.

Successful authors don’t write to the market. They remain true to themselves and their own voices. But if they want their stories to be read, they remember that they aren’t writing for themselves alone. They are writing for their readers. So they don’t write in a way that is cutesy or condescending or shuts readers out. They write in a way that lets readers in, makes readers a part of the action, allows readers to feel something. It’s that connection and partnership that build a bond between writer and reader.

Photo Credit: Josh Cheuse

 

5. It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Actually, after AC/DC formed in 1973, it only took them three years to become one of the most popular bands in Australia, score a recording contract with Atlantic Records, and get worldwide distribution of their music. But they’re the exception rather than the rule, and that doesn’t mean those three years were easy. For a musician, “overnight” success is particularly grueling–it means nonstop touring, starting in their hometown and gradually expanding out to other venues. During those early years, AC/DC played live shows every night, giving their all even in seedy venues with few patrons. Next year marks the band’s 50-year anniversary, and they’ve toured hard for most of those 50 years.

Bon Scott, Angus Young, and Malcolm Young wrote “It’s a Long Way to the Top” in 1975, to commemorate those early years. Scott taught himself to play the bagpipes–he played them on the recording and live in about 30 performances. Out of respect for Scott, Brian Johnson doesn’t perform the song.

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll
It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

If you think it’s easy doing one night stands
Try playing in a rock-roll band

It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n’ roll

Most artists spend many years painting, sculpting, or writing in solitude and without acknowledgment, and enduring a great deal of hardship, before they reach a modicum of success. It takes a special kind of tenacity to become a successful artist, as well as an understanding of what success means to you. And it takes hard-rock stamina to maintain and to keep building on that success. The lesson to take from AC/DC, writers, is to give it your all, each and every day, to be consistent, and to keep working hard even when you feel discouraged. Keep the faith, and trust in the process–if you continue to put in the work, you will get there. It probably won’t happen overnight, but that will make it all the sweeter when it does.

This is the official video for AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” It’s one of my favorite AC/DC songs–the call and response between the bagpipes and guitar is amazing!

5 Reasons Not to Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.

I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.

The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.

We had to decline the story, for several reasons:

    1. The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
    2. The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
    3. Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.

Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:

1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest.  If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.

I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.

2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.

The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.

3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.

Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.

Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.

4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.

In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the  right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.

Know what you’re getting into.

5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.

Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.

Good luck!