Telling the Origin Story

There’ve been a lot of superhero movies lately. A lot of reboots, a lot of reboots, or characters coming to the screen for the first time (or after a long hiatus.) This, by necessity, demands the origin stories are retold. Sometimes that’s because they were written so long ago they’re no longer relevant and need some updates. Sometimes it’s because it’s been so long that a new generation of potential fans must be educated. Sometimes it’s because the origin has to be told in a way that sets up and fits with the theme and style that’s going to be presented for the rest of the film. Whatever the reason, origin stories are big these days.

As a quick aside, if you have access to Netflix, you should hit up the new Daredevil series. Because it’s awesome. Mind you, this is coming from someone who never had a lot of love for Matt Murdock and company; I found him tolerable, but in my “comics phase” I never made a point to go out of my way to grab the latest Daredevil unless Venom, Ghost Rider or Spider-Man was appearing in that issue. This is also someone who would like to hunt down and murder Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner for their participation in that atrocious film adaptation. So your mileage may vary. But if you’re already paying for Netflix, it won’t cost you anything but an hour of your time to check out an episode. So go do it. I’m going to stick the trailer here, now. Because you should watch it.

Of course, very little of the above discussion has anything to do with what I’m actually writing about today. But I was told recently that sharing “origin” stories is a fun and entertaining exercise. So I’m going to inflict my own upon you. Be prepared. It’s probably boring to most. Especially those of you who may have heard some or all of it previously.

But the takeaway lesson to be found in it is that writing has always been my escape, my survival tactic, my mechanism. I hurt, a lot of the time; I have a tendency to bury it and solider on anyway, which probably isn’t healthy – at least the last few shrinks have told me so – but when it’s just me and the keyboard, I can pretend I don’t, for a while. I can laugh it off, claim nothing’s wrong even if my behaviors or general demeanor say otherwise, and live with my characters, where terrible things might – and frequently do – happen, but where I am still a welcome invader, where my physical pain is somewhere behind me and emotions can be expressed safely and quietly without disturbing anyone or having to think about how they’re actually affecting me.

I was asked recently if I found the creative process hard. I said “No. But I understand those who do.” I don’t think that’s me being pretentious; it’s just fact. I don’t find it hard to slip off into the land of make believe and begin scribbling. It’s hard to do something coherent with the scribbles. Hard to force myself to work on a project that I know I need to be working on, when I want to be playing off over there. But I started young, and had a mindset of “create or die.” Survival mechanisms are funny that way; when they get bred in, they become second nature, and you only stop to think about them when someone points it out.

Here’s where it began. With a Nirvana devoted to the written word, and a stolen typewriter. The behemoth still works – sort of. I powered it on while I was writing this post, just to see. The keys are kind of gummed up, and the ribbon is long dead, but a bottle of polish remover and some searching on eBay could rectify those issues, and probably should. It is, after all, my oldest surviving friend. It’s been with me for nearly thirty years.

My typewriter is a lot like me. Beat up. Damaged. Old. Nicotine stained, scarred from being dropped one too many times or lashed out at when it wasn’t behaving as expected. Locked away in a corner when it had served its purpose and fetched when it seemed it might be useful again. Trotted out as an amusing anecdote in polite company.

But it’s like me in other ways, too. It still works. It can still buckle down and do what needs to be done, if the right salves and unguents are applied to it. It can still make something worthwhile, if the impetus is strong and one is willing to dance around an issue or a malfunction or two.

The behemoth, uncaged.

The behemoth, uncaged. Being watched by the coyote, in case it tries anything.

In honor of my typewriter, I thus bring you the origin story.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

When I was a child, my dad loved to read. My mom believed this meant he should also write; whether he did or not, I will unfortunately never know. But as an consequence of that line of thinking, I came upon this path, so it’s for the best. At least, I think so… Some of you reading this might disagree.

His room was a Wonderland to someone like me… On the occasions I was allowed into it, anyway. There were probably a half-dozen bookcases in there, the hulking particle board monstrosities one obtains from Wal-Mart for $20 a pop, and every one of them was crammed full. Three books deep and usually two high with room for more stuffed in sideways. I remember trying to count them once, and getting up to around two hundred on the first three shelves alone. Some basic math based on memory says that means there was at least 2,400 books in that room.

That is, of course, not counting the ones that had bled out into the living room or those my sister had filched for her own collection, the stacks of boxes hiding in other rooms or storage sheds, or the bucket loads that were carted to library sales and donation bins.

The man was a voracious reader, leaving his dog-eared droppings on every available surface. He’d make a run to the store at least once a day for cigarettes or candy bars and always come back with two or three new paperbacks. They would usually be consumed by the time he next ventured to the supermarket, crammed into those bookshelves or stacked up near the current collection box, depending on his whims of the moment.

So far as I know, he never wrote anything of substance, despite his prodigious intake. But, as noted, mom seemed to think he should, so she continued to provide him writing implements. For the most part, they would go unused, gathering dust until they were replaced the next Christmas. I don’t know where most of them wound up, but one in particular holds a place of importance to me.

It was a portable typewriter. Now, I don’t know about you, but I question the portability of something that weighs fifty pounds, comes in a case that’s over a foot tall, two and a half feet wide, and a foot and a half deep, but standards were different, then. Compare to the iPad that I do my on-the-go writing with these days – even accounting for the few times I strap it into the heavy-duty case and attach the keyboard to it – and it becomes a behemoth, a monster. It certainly wouldn’t be allowed at parties without some serious time on a treadmill and some Weight Watchers meetings.

When it came time to be replaced, it was ousted by a word processor. Radio Shack’s finest model at the time. Which was almost as large and heavy as the typewriter. but even less functional. The hoops you had to jump through to make that thing behave were ridiculous, and it was often a better option to switch it to typewriter mode and call it good… which of course was defeating the point. But that word processor isn’t the point of the story. When it arrived, the typewriter was out, and that relegated it to the dusty corner of the closet where few dared tread.

I was six. I was curious. Somehow, the idea of the typewriter had caught my attention, had made me think it was worth braving the wrath of the parentals and figuring out just what I could do with it. So one day while mom was busy and dad was out, I crept in and absconded with the behemoth. I was tall for my age, but lanky, and lugging the dead beast from one end of the house to the other was a Herculean effort; still, something said “This is going to be worth it.”

I’m not going to get into the psychological damage that led me to this line of thinking. Suffice it to say, I thought that if I could tame the dragon, produce something worthwhile from the clicking of keys and that delightful ratcheting noise produced when you did a line return or rolled in a fresh sheet of paper, that good things would happen.

Once safely in my room, with the door shut and the typewriter humming away – it required power, made a terrible noise while it was drawing that power, and had a tendency to smell like burning hair if you left it plugged in for more than an hour or two – in the corner farthest from the door, a fresh sheet of paper filched from the desk in the front hall under the roller and ready to go, I hit my first roadblock.

“What do I write about?”

I had been telling myself stories for some time at that point in my life. Sometimes I tried to tell them to my family or others outside that circle, but they usually got all garbled in translation and were prone to provoking stares of horror, often followed by headshaking and walking away from me. So I didn’t want to write any of those stories.

Of course, later in life, I resurrected some of those ideas. But hey, I was six, give me a break. We’re not all able to rip the scabs off and expose ourselves the first time we take up an implement of creative purging.

Deciding to play it “safe,” I came upon the idea of writing about Mario. You know fat guy. plumber, often stoned on mushrooms and off saving princesses. I’d write a story about Mario, I said to myself.

And I did. On tracing paper with jagged edges, partly because I ran out of normal paper and was scared to ask for more, and partly because I wanted to trace an image to serve as a “cover” and it didn’t occur to me that I could have done one sheet that way and the rest “normally.”

I remember those sheets very well. It was probably around five pages long, all told. Of course, that included the typos that I noticed, since the only response to them was to back up the print head and type xxxxx through them. So the actual story was probably only a couple of pages. I was so proud. I stapled them together and ran off to show mommy.

Mommy was less than enthused, to say the least. Tracing paper is expensive, where did I get the typewriter, was I using the scissors. That sort of thing. At least she let me keep the typewriter.

It sat, mostly silent except for the very occasional clicks and clacks, for almost two years. Then I had a revelation. I would take my two great loves of the time – vampires and swords and sorcery-style material – and do something amazing with them! Bwa ha!

It took me quite some time, and more than one restart; the end result was nothing short of awful in this author’s humble opinion. But I had, at last, made something. Roughly 8,000 words of something, which is even now creeping around my website.

Yet again, others were less than impressed. Even I can’t look at it now without cringing; at least the Mario fan fiction was short and sweet, and didn’t try to pretend to be something epic and interesting. One of my main characters was named Redmage. And he fought skelezombis. Yeah. Let that sink in.

To be fair, I don’t necessarily think I’ve gotten any better at naming things; they may be slightly less blatantly insipid or ripped off, but I don’t think they’re all that interesting or exciting, either.

Still, now that round two of the fight with my nature had gone down, I felt a little more accomplished. There was less concern over the idea that nobody else cared, and the typewriter was still calling. At this point, however, I had access to a better tool: The Tandy 1000 RLX.

I’d had computers, before. I was sadly without a Commodore 64 or an Apple II like the cool kids had, but Tandy’s Color Computer 2 (and later 3, later still 3 with extra RAM and other assorted upgrades) had been in my room for quite some time. They were less than impressive as word processors, however, especially when there wasn’t really a supply of software readily forthcoming. TS/EDIT and TS/WORD were available, and I even had the disks for them at one point, but the options were lacking on the hardware I had, and the lack of a second disk drive to save my work or a printer for hard copy were crippling flaws when compared to the typewriter.

But that DeskMate equipped PC compatible solved those issues. Printers were easy and cheap to find, and having a whopping 20 meg (yes, you read that right. Megs, not gigs, kids) hard drive alongside a built-in text editor gave me some new options… and finally released me from the dreaded “xxxxx” or retyping pages to repair the errors.

So that typewriter was at last retired. Locked back in the carrying case, set in my own closet. I’ve had it since, and it still rests below my desk as I write this. From that Tandy I moved on to a PS/2, where I was introduced to Microsoft Word; from there – once I was making my own electronics purchasing selections – I moved to an iMac (still with Word), then a PowerMac with Apple Pages, and a selection of Apple devices all equipped with that software, culminating in my current iPad. Which, as noted before, makes the typewriter look like a morbidly obese and mentally deficient dockworker in comparison. But they still hang out on the weekends. Sometimes I think the typewriter is talking to the iPad, often starting conversations with “You know, back in my day…”

Is it crazy that I actually considered writing this on that old beast, just for nostalgia’s sake? I decided that was a little too much of a hipster thing to do… plus, the woman of the house and the dogs would likely not take kindly to the smell or the sound. They get annoyed enough from the clicking of my mechanical keyboard, or the rhythmic clicking the tablet produces when using the on-screen keyboard, and those products don’t emit the scent of burning hair. But it was a tempting and amusing thought for a while.

But that’s all a sidetrack. This is where it began. One little boy hijacking his father’s imagination station and trying to see what it could do for him. One part survival and coping mechanism, one part boredom. And that led to hundreds of thousands of words typed on dozens of keyboards, a handful of published novels and god knows how many unfinished pieces molding in the trunk – the trunk in this case being a Star Wars USB thumb drive, at this point in time –  and the uncontrollable urge to peck away at all hours of the day and night.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I suppose it’s follow your intuition. Let your creativity and curiosity wander, even if it doesn’t seem like there’s a point to it, or if it gets you frustrated. Sooner or later it’ll bear fruit. It might be rancid, might be of a flavor only you can stand… but fruit is fruit.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

What about those of you out there? What led you to whatever creative madness you consider your fruit, regardless of how bitter or sweet it may be? What tools, old friends or scrapped projects do you have lying about, silent reminders of your own journey? Were they survival mechanisms, just for fun, or somewhere in between? Let us know in the box below. Until next time.

KA Spiral no signature

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