An Idea is Born

The stream of consciousness prompt this week is “scene/seen”, and that feels like kismet. Because if you’ve spent any time around my blarg, you know that one of the things that’s been front-of-mind for me over the last year or so is my novel. And I think so much about what the novel is and what it may yet be that it’s easy to forget what it once was, which was a dumb little scene I wrote for a playwriting class I took in my fourth year at UGA. I say dumb not because I thought that scene was bad (though if I read it again I might have to reconsider that assessment), but because I wrote it almost as a throwaway. We’d been in the class for maybe three weeks, were still learning the ropes, and this assignment was an easy one to get us thinking outside of the box a bit.

“Have a character enter your scene from somewhere unexpected.”

Were you to give me that prompt now, I’d have a hard time deciding which outlandish entrance to use. I’d have somebody come crashing through the window or the ceiling. I’d have an escaped prisoner tunnel up through somebody’s living room floor. I’d have a reincarnated Elvis enter from the bathroom in a cloud of psychedelic lights and smoke. (Okay, so I stole that Elvis entrance from Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile). The problem would not be “how do I write this scene,” the problem would be “how do I choose?”

But at the time, the prompt stymied me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of strange entrances — I could — but I couldn’t think of a way to justify any of them. The idea would strike, but I wouldn’t know how to connect it to anything meaningful. Even as I write that, I find myself shaking my head — it was just an exercise scene, it didn’t have to connect to anything meaningful! — but I was stuck. Stuck, stuck, stuck. I sat in front of my computer staring at a blank page for the better part of an hour, unable to write this scene, too nervous to take a chance.


The one piece of writing advice that everybody knows is to write what you know. Frustrated with the assignment and my inability to pen even a single word, I fell back on that old axiom. I’m blocked? Can’t crack this scene? Fargo it. And I wrote my character, a frazzled, frustrated guy, sitting white-knuckled and scruff-faced obstinately in front of a typewriter. (Yeah, yeah, I know, I have a thing about typewriters.) I had him struggle and hem and haw and make excuses and bang his head against the wall, and then, finally, he just gave up trying to be creative and wrote a crappy, cliched little scene. Nothing special about it. Except that it appeared out of nowhere (the unexpected entrance, such as it was) and played out right in front of him. Taken aback at first, he spoke to the characters that suddenly existed right there in his crappy apartment. The newly created characters shared their thoughts (this setting sucks! I would never read that book! Why would I even say that to her?), he took their advice, and in a matter of moments he had figured out that the best way to write was to get the fargo out of the way and allow the characters to explore their own situation.

I thought it was crap. I mean, really, I was almost ashamed of it. So ashamed that I almost didn’t go to class the next day. But crappy though it was, I had enjoyed the taste of writing it, so I went. Naturally, the teacher (the inimitable Stanley Longman) called on me as one of the first to present. With sheepish disclaimers, I handed copies of the scene to three of my classmates, who took a few minutes to read over it before assuming positions on the stage. I heard them giggling as they ran through it and thought, great, it’s as terrible as I feared and now I’m going to be exposed for a hack. Then they read the scene, and the laughter continued; little snickers here and there, even a stray guffaw. Finished, the actors took their seats and I sat on the feedback stool, red-faced in front of everybody, and waited to be verbally crucified.

First hand raised, I called on a girl whose name I didn’t know at the front of the room. I’m paraphrasing, of course: “First of all, it was really funny. I loved the interplay between what we expected from his characters and what they really wanted for themselves.” Nods from around the room. Next up, a guy who sat near me and whom I’d collaborated with on an earlier exercise. “I recognize that struggle when I write,” he said, “it was cool to actually see it on stage. And it worked.”

The workshop continued. I got critical feedback as well as praise. But my professor’s comment stuck with me more than any of the rest. He scratched his head and spread his hands like a big grandfather gorilla. “The concept needs a little work, just to polish up the how-is-all-this-happening, and the why. An audience wants that. But it’s funny, you’ve nailed that. Those comedic elements are the hardest to pin down, and you’ve done it. Don’t you think?” He inclined his head past me toward the class, and there were vigorous nods of assent. He chuckled. “I loved it.”

That class was my favorite experience in my undergraduate years. Much though I loved that class, I got distracted from that scene and didn’t think about it for a few years. When I graduated and moved back home, I had the opportunity to work with my old high school and ended up taking the core concept of that scene — an author at war with his characters — and expanding it into a full length production. It went over like gangbusters, and, shock of all shocks, it played a role in my meeting with my wife (her mother saw the show, knew me from my work with a community theatre, and kinda-sorta shoved her in my direction).

Now, eight years later, that stage play is becoming a novel. And I feel the same fears in its formation that I felt in those days struggling with that seedling of a scene: that it’s contrived, that it won’t be funny, that it’s ultimately utter crap. But somehow, this time around, I’m not nearly so fearful as I was. Maybe it’s that I’m older and jaded and I don’t care what people think like I used to. Maybe it’s because I’m more confident now than I was then in the concept and my ability. Maybe it’s because I’m older and losing touch with reality and don’t know well enough to be properly nervous. Whatever the reason, it’s a nice reminder to myself that I’ve had success with this story once, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen again.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

Things Writers Need — The Hemingwrite

I’ve just seen a thing.

I don’t know what to make of it.  I’m very much of two minds.

I’ve had my say about typewriters before.  I think they’re cute and quaint and entirely impractical for any writer to be using to do any real writing in the — and I say this with no irony whatsoever, except for the implicit  — modern era.  I stand by that wholeheartedly.  When you consider the gamut of writing devices, a machine that uses paper, has no means to erase or edit on the fly, and that cannot multitask in any way, shape, or form, is simply an inferior alternative to any device which can, you know, backspace, or fit in your pocket, or at least your carry-on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a certain romantic nostalgia about typewriters.  The sounds they make as you click away at their keys are soothing and hypnotic — much more so than the impersonal muffled thumps that issue from the plastic construction of a laptop or a multi-function bluetooth keyboard.  And, you know, the greats wrote on typewriters, or something like that.  So there’s hero emulation thrown in there to boot.  I see the draw, even if it doesn’t measure up to even the flimsiest of word processors.

But then tonight, I see this.  The Hemingwrite.


It’s a word processor stuffed into the body of a typewriter analog.  It syncs wirelessly and automatically with backup services like google docs and Evernote (which I love).  It has weeks and weeks of battery life.  It’s about the size of a very large book, or a very small chessboard.  It’s adorable.  And all it lets you do is write.

It looks like much of what I love about WriteMonkey (my drafting software of choice) literally crammed into a box that lets you write without the distractions of the wily internet and whatever apps you have chiming and sucking your life away.  And my Id-Writer stops slavering, looks out through the bars of his cage toward this unassuming little box, and ponders.

I can’t decide if I love or hate this idea.

The pendulum swings in favor of this thing initially.  It’s undoubtedly brilliant.  There are, I have no doubt, scads of writers and would-be writers, their heads clouded with that romantic image of Hemingway bent over a buzzing machine, the keys clattering into the night, who will happily throw money at the manufacturers of this thing just for the chance to ape the greats while still maintaining the creature comforts of cloud backups and wireless syncing.  The Hemingwrite website, which has only been up for a few months, overtly states that the creators are overwhelmed by the response already, and they’re not even past the prototyping phases yet.  This thing is going to sell like crazy to people wanting one for themselves, let alone as gifts for the writerly types out there.

But is it necessary?  I mean, my laptop automatically backs up my work as I write and is just as portable as this little gadget.  It also allows me to browse the web, watch movies, play games, and you know, anything else you can do with a fully-powered computer.  For that matter, it allows me — with the use of the proper programs — to have the same uninterrupted, distraction-free writing experience that the Hemingwrite seeks to provide, minus of course the vaguely romantic notion of typing on a typewriter that’s not really a typewriter.

But there’s something to that, isn’t there?  The feel of creating on something that’s not a do-it-all magic box.  They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have (though that’s perhaps a bad idea if you’re a businessman who wants to be an ice fisher), and doesn’t this gizmo allow you to advertise to the world that “I AM A WRITER” in a way that no simple laptop can?  And isn’t writing all about being in the proper mindset to create?  By extension, then, if this tool helps you, in any small way, to get a little bit closer to the zone, isn’t it worth the trouble?

And then my pendulum swings the other way again, because don’t I — don’t we, as Americans (make no mistake, this is for Americans, much as I hate the “we as fill-in-the-blank” construction) — have enough stuff already?  Part of the romance of writing (and I’m overusing the word “romance” in this little entry, I now realize, but fargo it, it cuts both ways) is the simplicity of it.  From the blank screen, the blank page, the flashing cursor on the screen, I craft worlds and people and plots and MacGuffins and really wild things.  If I’m a writer, I already have a computer or laptop to help me do those things.  Do I need another thing on my desk to help me do the same things?  I’m not sure I do.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.  I have enough of a headache working on two different computers in two different settings; I can only imagine the frustration of getting all keyed-in and in love with this little machine and then having to haul it back and forth from home to work.  And then forgetting it and having to work on my laptop anyway.  Or finding room for it on my already cluttered desks.  And justifying to myself and my wife the existence of this thing which doesn’t really do anything for me that the stuff I already had isn’t capable of doing.

Then again, it looks like they’ll offer it in Georgia Bulldog Red.


I think it’s a fascinating little thing.  I’m sure it will help writers if only in a Placebo Effect, I’m-becoming-a-better-writer-because-I-feel-like-a-writer kind of way.  But the more I think about it, the more it feels like too much novelty, not enough practicality.  I think I’d love to test-drive one, but I definitely can’t see buying one for myself, unless, when they finally get around to selling these things, the price tag ends up in the realm of the ridiculously low.  Based on the hype around this thing, though, I’d be shocked if it goes for less than $80, and I even think that might be optimistic on my part.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh on the little Hemingwrite, which for all intents and purposes hasn’t even been born yet?