Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Smell of Ink


Have you seen those challenges to write entire stories in six words? My childhood and young adult years can be summed up as: Girl at typewriter, over and over.

Yes, a typewriter, with ribbons that turned fingers black and blue in the struggle to change them, when "font" was a word only printers used. There are black and white photos of me reading, then at a typewriter pecking out stories, or haiku, or whatever else struck my imagination. The fourth grade “Junior Newbery” award? Still have it; don’t tell anyone. The maudlin high school poems pondering existence, written with my latest favorite pen or pencil from the stash in my desk drawer? Tossed them. Boy, were they bad. But my confidence as a writer was fine: I saved reports for the last minute, knowing I could rip through a profile of Minnesota or the Roman Empire in no time.

There is a later photo, of my cropped head bent over a Selectric at my first grown-up job: assistant director of communications for a state agency. By then I had a degree in journalism, a major I came to only after writing for and serving as news editor for the UMass Daily Collegian. Writing came first, a degree its useful outcome, not that I was completely immune to the practical. After graduation I turned down an opportunity to be editor of a fledgling music magazine (annual salary below poverty line) to work for a brilliant man named Harry Durning who wanted me to write while the state paid me a living wage for the pleasure. Press releases, brochures, speeches, annual reports. Words, sentences, paragraphs, one after the other.

Public relations agencies need writers, too, bless them. The Weber Group, twelve people strong when I joined, grew to become the foundation of an international powerhouse. More releases, collateral, speeches, then edits of other people’s documents, then increasing meetings and strategy and business. I missed having a byline and started writing bits on the side for The Improper Bostonian, the Phoenix, and supplements of The Boston Globe. After marriage and a first child, I started to freelance both public relations and marketing writing. Every time, it amazes me that someone will pay me to write. When they’re not paying me, I do it anyway.

All my life I have entertained characters who flit in and out of my head, closed my eyes to memorize smells and sensations, jotted them down in endless notebooks with Rollerball pens. In addition to capturing other people’s experiences and thoughts over the years, I have put my stories to paper, on the computer, and more recently, have told them in lines at the zoo, in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms, on long car rides. I have tried to describe it to my husband as the flip side of reading a book and that feeling of going to another place; but in writing you go deeper and farther because the place and events are coming up out of you. There’s no choice. If I don’t write my own stories, I feel it physically. The tension grows, bottles up, waiting for me to pick up a pen or bang on the keyboard. When I'm done it's as through the ink is still on my fingers, filling all the senses. Some people may think this is crazy, but so be it.

Children, house, job, still I write.

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