Confessions of a Literary Troglodyte

There are times when newer is not necessarily better. Call me a dinosaur, but I have been looking around at manual typewriters.


But why, you may ask.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I write first drafts in longhand. It doesn’t matter if it’s a poem, a short story, an essay, or a novel. A couple of decades ago, I finished a novel on a typewriter. But I started it longhand. Over the years I have tried various computers and their word processing programs. And all them did me well. Still, for me, there’s nothing like composing a draft with nothing but a legal pad (college-ruled, of course) and a pen. And, as of late, I am wanting for a typewriter to type up intermediate drafts of those hand-written drafts.

Ludicrous you say? Perhaps, but maybe this isn’t about using nearly obsolete technology (the typewriter…not pen and paper…pen and paper will always be around…heck, I can stir up a five-subject notebook in which draft of a novel was written, part of it in pencil…it was a particularly snowy night and my favorite pen had run out of ink…). Maybe it’s about something else. Let me take you back in time.

To say my father was a hoarder would be untrue. He did, however, collect things from time to time. In warmer weather, it was egg shells and coffee grounds to fertilize the lawn. One day he brought home a manual typewriter from work. I was in the sixth grade. Or maybe it was end of my fifth grade year. My family moved out of the Fairview section of Camden, NJ in May 1977 and went out to the suburbs (Runnemede…Exit 3 for Jersey natives everywhere).

Back then there were perhaps two things in the world that interested me most. One, comic books. I was a Marvel Comics guy. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Prince Namor, and others. Doctor Strange was too out there for me, but not for long. Later, by the eighth grade, weed would take care of that. But I digress…The second thing? Science fiction and fantasy novels. So it was no stretch that between comic books and sci-fi/fantasy novels, and the manual typewriter, I thought I would make up my own story. There was a comic book I bought called Man-God (Marvel Comics). The story was about a guy who had, you guessed it, god-like qualities. His name was Hugo Danner. You can read more about Man-God here, but do come back. There’s more.

Near the typewriter there was a pocket dictionary with a red plastic cover. It may have belonged to my brother. It may have belonged to one of my sisters. I mention this because I took perfect sheets of typing paper, traced the outline of the little red dictionary on the top page, and proceeded to cut them down to size. Afterward, my mother extolled the virtue of not being wasteful. For her, all things paper were expensive. Obviously, typing paper was expensive, as were loose leaf, napkins, paper towels, and the ever-present supply of brown paper lunch bags in our home (I went through a spell in the second grade making puppets out of brown paper lunch bags…and then throwing them away). My mother would turn out to be a formidable foe in my homemade book project.

For a week, I petitioned my parents to let me tear the little dictionary out of its cover and then use the cover for my little story.

“You shouldn’t destroy books, Richard,” my mother had told me.

“I’m not going to destroy the little dictionary,” I said. “I just want the cover to make a book.”

“And what will you do to keep the pages in it?”

“Use glue,” I answered.

“You will get it all over,” my mother concluded.

When I put the question to my father, who had selective listening down to a science, he simply remarked, “Not the good dictionary?”

In our house there were few different dictionaries. Paperback ones we carted to school. The aforementioned Little Red Dictionary. And the coveted “good dictionary” which was a two-volume hardbound Merriam-Webster set my father had inherited from his father.

“What do you want to do with the little dictionary?” my father asked.

“I want to use the cover for my book,” I told him.

“Ask your brother and sisters,” he replied.

While the jury was still out, I went to work composing my little story which, as I recall, was inspired by, if not a complete rip-off of, Man-God. As an eleven-year-old boy, I had no idea how hard typing could be. It didn’t take long to find out. Sadly, I no longer have that old story in my possession. If I had, you can bet I would post it here.

So we fast-forward a bit to my high school years. The manual typewriter remained in our home until it was replaced by an electric typewriter. The three-prong plug on the electric typewriter was off-setting. And, to use the parlance of my dearly departed mother, the ‘contraption’ made a lot of noise. From that electric typewriter I graduated to another electric typewriter, a Brother daisy wheel model. Between the two, I did my fair share of typing out second drafts of my hand-written stories. These were glorious days. Well, at least until my junior year of high school. But this is not about ills of high school romance and the agony of teen love lost…

In truth, I was reluctant to embrace computer technology when it came along. In time, however, I learned to use it and rather well. Nevertheless, I still yearn for those days at my parents’ kitchen table, or out on the back porch where my mother kept a small table or another and a couple of chairs over the years (primarily, as a smoking lounge of sorts), when I would sit at the typewriter, pound out a few pages, and dream of other worlds.

I still dream of other worlds, of course. That much will never change. Call me crazy, but there is something to be said about the noise of good old-fashioned typewriter; to say nothing of the imperfect print and smudge that comes with honest writing. The clatter will never bring back those days from when I was young; no more than it can bring back my parents. Maybe it will rattle some memories, and I will write an honest work about the two people in my life who encouraged this writing thing. And if not, I can sure try and make some noise.

An Albino King Walks into a Bar Bearing a Black Sword: Or, The Sci-fi Fantasy Novel I Abandoned

So, recently I read on Facebook that over at a blog by Karin L. Kross  describes rereading Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock. My local library picked up on the blog and provided a link to it via their Facebook page. As fantasy books go, I read Elric more than once when I was young. The same for the rest in the series.

This cycle of stories I loved so much that (nerd alert, alert, nerd alert!) I even packed up the old two-volume Science Fiction Book Club set I had and brought it with me when I served in the army. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a complete lunatic about the whole thing. It’s not like I carried them around in my rucksack during basic training; though I suspect that I may have tried.

In the mid 1980s my drill sergeants were all about confiscating contraband: from weed to Walkmans, from liquor to nudie magazines. Had I actually smuggled in the Elric Saga I don’t know what they would have made of the albino king and his black sword Stormbringer. So, I waited until I arrived at Fort Campbell, KY, home of the Screaming Eagles, and soon had my hardbound 2-volume set proudly displayed in my barracks room.

It was Elric the Albino King and other fantasy novels that led me to write my first novel as a teenager. I was maybe fifteen years old. Reading Elric of Melnibone made me understand, at least as much as a fifteen year old boy can, what with the hormones rioting in my body like gangs at the Five Points in 19th century NYC, that a well-rounded main character was also a vulnerable one. By the time I was fifteen I had read most of the assigned books to me in school: A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, and a slew of other realist fiction novels. But science fiction and fantasy (and horror too) were my secret addiction. In school, I couldn’t wait to get home and read Elric or The Hobbit or any other paperback I could get my hands on. I was a teenage junkie in that respect. And despite being a self-avowed sci-fi fantasy nerd, I managed to go steady with a girl or two. No, they weren’t from Canada. And no, they weren’t make-believe. But that’s a story for another time…

So, I deliberated for weeks about how to best approach this story. There were only so many story lines I knew. The plot I settled on for my first attempt was this: space-faring team of men crash-land on a planet whose indigenous race was not technologically advanced. The people were more akin to the Ancient Greeks or the Romans. Their native religion heralded the arrival of some messiah to save them from the oppressive dictator that made their lives miserable.

Yes, it was old-hat even by late 1970s/early 1980s standards as plot lines go. Add to this predictable story line another familiar twist: one of the stranded astronauts is mistaken for the so-called messiah. Not because his advanced gear makes him seem magical. He didn’t heal anyone; ditto for exorcising demons. The rest of his crew? Sacrificed by the evil dictator’s henchmen. I needed them out of the way so the main character could develop a relationship with the lead female character, the free-spirited, intelligent daughter of the tyrant. Throw into this mix a roaming horde of omnivorous locust-like insects that consumed everything in sight. Why? I remember thinking about the running of time option in the story.

Ultimately, I abandoned the story because

1. the omnivorous insects would have consumed all life on the planet I had created within six chapters.

2. I was falling madly in love with a girl I knew since childhood (she was going to be a ballet dancer. I was going to run a karate school. Never mind that she couldn’t dance and I had never taken a formal karate lesson in my life. It was love, damn it.).

3. other stories came into mind that sparked my interest more than the ill-fated space-faring, messiah, human sacrifice, flesh-eating insect, love story I wanted to portray.

But not necessarily in that order.

Oddly, this brings me back to Elric of Melnibone, the albino king. For years afterward, I struggled with trying to write some sword and sorcery novel or another, but eventually gave up hope. Not because I don’t think I couldn’t have written one. It had more to do with all of my work at that time coming out like some retread of Conan the Barbarian, Elric, The Lord of the Rings, and others. As a young impressionable writer, I was in awe of these tales; but I felt as if I couldn’t add anything unique to a story tradition that goes back all the way to Beowulf.

These days, things are different. I have a story brewing that may be worth something. But first, before I delve too deep into such a project, I need to revisit Elric of Melnibone and seek counsel. It has been a long time since I maneuvered the complicated sea-maze that protects the Dragon Isle. Anyone who wants to come with me is welcome to do so.

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