How Writers Play

I just returned from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference in Chicago. When I explained to a friend that an AWP conference falls short of a stroll through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, he responded, “who said writing is fun?” In an attempt to publish a few of my short-stories, I struck-up conversations with various journal staff. I learned that editors provide ambiguous responses as to their journals’ literary interests. To some extent, I understand why—10,000 writers in one space begging for a minute of your time is exhausting. However, these conversations jaded the reason why, as a kid, I began to write: it’s fun, and a form of play.

And here are playthings that support this simple argument:  

1. A typewriter. My grandpa said little about the typewriter he stored in the attic, but I knew he acquired it during WWII. I also listened to the only story my grandpa shared about the war—his introduction to Ernest Hemingway, when he served as a war correspondent. That was enough to intrigue me. As a kid, I’d pretend type a war report or a story on his typewriter.

Manufacturers often created typewriters as much for aesthetic reasons as for practical ones. I later learned that one early typewriter resembled a pinball machine and another stood nearly eight feet tall.The Strong’s collections contain two of my favorites, the Crandall and the IBM Selectric.

The Crandall, Crandall Machine Co., 1988, Courtesy of The StrongIn 1888, the Crandall Machine Co. sold the ornately decorated Crandall, which featured decorative gold patterns and mother-of-pearl inlays. Inventor Lucien Crandall used a single-element typesleeve that turned into position when the typist pressed a key. Earlier typewriters printed font under the cylinder, out of the typist’s view, but the Crandall’s advancements permitted the writer to see the emerging text. I still imagine that typing a flawless sentence on the Crandall proved a feat.

IBM Selectric II, IBM 1985, Gift of Richard Sherin, Courtesy of The StrongI first saw an electric typewriter when I went to visit my dad’s office at IBM in the 1980s. During the ascendancy of electric typewriters, many considered the IBM Selectric as the gold standard for its durability, solidity, and speedy operation. IBM hired architect and industrial designer Eilot Noyes to design the typewriter. At the time of my visit, I played with dad’s computer, but today I am more intrigued by the Slectric’s sleek appearance, and the click and ping of a typewriter.

2. An eraser. Art gum, poster putty, soft vinyl, and novelty erasers occupy a corner of my desk. I fidget with the puzzle erasers during a bout of writer’s block and I edit with a Pink eraser.

Kokeshi Doll Eraser, Japan, 1960, Courtesy of The StrongA unique eraser set from The Strong’s collection is a pair of 1960 Kokeshi dolls composed of wood and rubber. Historians believe Japanese wood artists originally crafted these dolls in the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868) and sold Kokeshi to people visiting local hot springs. The enlarged heads bared simple painted lines to define the face and the dolls cylinder base lacked both arms or legs. Typical of the style, these eraser dolls wear a colorful wardrobe.

Popular among my coworkers, Iwako Co., Ltd.’s omoshiro keshigomu (funny erasers) collections were first manufactured in 1985. The erasers come in various shapes and colors. Friends often mix and match the body shapes and heads of the puzzle, eraser critters. It makes for a playful day of editing.  

The Elements of Style, Strunk, White, and Kalman, Courtesy of The Strong3. Writing Prompts. I often turn to writing guides such as Kim Addonizo’s Ordinary Genius: A True & Beautiful Course of Writing Poetry or the illustrated Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

While recently perusing the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives' shelves, I stumbled upon The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice. In more than 1,200 entries, Morice explores literary forms such as the Exquisite Corpse, spoonerisms, and anagrams. In the Introduction, Morice reminds his reader of fun word play such as a newspaper headline mistake, “milk drinkers are turning into powder,” or Romeo and Juliet’s Mercutio’s spout after losing a swordfight, “ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” Every way one plays with words changes the meaning, and therefore makes for fun.

So fellow toy lovers, when you have cause to wordsmith, how do you play with letters, sentences, punctuation, pens, pencils, or paper?

One thought

  1. This is great! It’s whimsical yet cohesive. If someone asked me “would you like to read a short essay about the development of typewriters, Japanese pencil erasers, kids and adults in various forms of play, I might not say yes. BUT, this as a sum is way greater than its parts. It is like a refreshing look at why we write, why we write, why we write, without all the heavy and counterintuitive yoking of detailed, grown-up explanation.
    This is a form of true sophistication. (I used to watch a t.v. show called “Fishing with John” which, on the surface, was about fishing and interviewing selected celebrities of artistic distinguished status, like Tom Waits, Willem Defoe). The show was almost never about fishing or interviewing. This is like that. There is misdirection going on here, and it’s comfortable.
    It also makes me think of looking at the production cycle of things. For instance, the orange you buy at the grocery store. It was grown in Florida and trucked to WNY, but there is clearly a long and involved story regarding everything from the soil in which it was grown to the family history of the farmers and farm-hands that made it possible. And, in the supermarket, it’s a dime-a-dozen. Writing is like this too. Writing, for Ms. Parnett, involved imagination as a child, and erasers as an adult. What an apt allegory. The writing is not an A through Z process, it’s a back-cycling, recursive thing that involves the writer, of all things, and the writer’s whole mind and experience.
    Loved it. Thanks.

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