The Nameless Blog, Day 94: Keys to the Kingdom

January 3rd, 2011

How lucky can I be?  I have the keys to the kingdom at hand.

One great thing about being a writer is that my office weighs about six pounds — seven and a half, if I carry all my spare batteries — and all I need is a flat surface.  I’ve written at home, on planes, in libraries, restaurants, coffee shops, on park benches and in doctor’s offices.  (Waiting in a doctor’s office is great writing time because they’re always late and they’re too cheap to pop for wi-fi.)

And the keys are always available when I need them. When I’ve got some little cloud of anxiety (that undifferentiated swarm of junk that Mel Brooks called the furlm) I can almost always enter into the world of whatever book is happening to me and work through things just by playing with the characters.  Writing is the real Primal Therapy.  It almost always works, and it has the additional advantage of being free.

In fact, eventually, I get paid for my therapy.

It amazes me that something as easy to manipulate as a keyboard is the bridge between my imagination and the page.  How convenient can it be?  I know that every single aspect of the process is actually massively complicated — the workings of the imagination, the transformation of whatever I’m imagining (sounds, smells, wishes, places, people, things, fears, menace, reward, etc etc etc) into words, the reduction of the words into letters and the identification of the letters with locations on the keyboard and the electronics that turn the taps on the keys into a digital approximation of whatever imaginings prompted the whole process.  But the genius of the mind (or, in this case, a whole bunch of minds, working over time just as precisely as they did to create the piano) is that it all feels simple.

Idea-words-keyboard-page.  Review it and move on.  After a certain amount of time, there’s (usually) a book.  Or a poem or a letter or a last will and testament.

Shakespeare would have loved the keyboard, although I’m not sure he’d have been fond of Word.

By the way, the typewriter at the top of the page is the Royal Typewriter Investigative Report Writer, designed for the secretaries of police and private eyes.  Investigative reports (it says here) had to be perfectly typed, and in an age when even a single mistake meant redoing the whole page and all the carbons, a problem arose: expert typists would get up to speed and make mistakes.  So this typewriter was intentionally designed to turn even a keyboard Paganini into a hunt-and-peck duffer by a very simple means.  They moved a few of the the keys.  The idea was that typists would have to find each letter, thereby slowing them down and reducing mistakes.

The design didn’t fly, but they sure picked a pretty color, didn’t they?

In parting, here’s something interesting to those of us who spend a lot of time on the keyboard.  This demonstrates the frequency of use of each key on the modern QWERTY layout.

Glad I don’t have to visualize this when I’m writing.

9 Responses to “The Nameless Blog, Day 94: Keys to the Kingdom”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    Hi, Tim

    I think you are very fortunate that your work only requires a keyboard to make it happen but then, wait, aren’t there some other essential technolgical advances that you require to keep your imagination moving and your work flowing properly?

    Pardon me while I take a more detailed accounting of some of the other keys to your kingdom.

    There’s your library of books, and your Kindle. After all, as I’ve heard you say before, all great writers are great readers.

    As well as your need for a massive music collection to inspire your imagination, so your iPod must be added onto your list of technological wonders.

    And then of course your travel to Asia should be factored in as well. How would the Poke series have actualized without you having lived in Asia?

    So would that mean you are dependent on jumbo jets too? Geez this is getting complicated.

    Then there’s your Garmin, was it Doris or Dorothy, I forget, who guided and nearly got you killed on your book tour?

    Okay, I’ll put a cap on it now.

    This is what happens when I fall off the tea only wagon and slip back to coffee.


  2. Gary Says:

    Your mention of Shakespeare using Word and your “In parting” made me wonder: How much has our language changed?

    In 1903, Conan Doyle wrote: “E is the most common letter in the English alphabet… Speaking roughly, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, and L are the numerical order in which letters occur; but T, A, O, and I are very nearly abreast of each other…” But when you examine that keyboard diagram you find that there’s been a noticeable shift in just a hundred years. T is now well ahead of A and O, and S has edged ahead of I to rival A.

    Tis This Tbecause Tmodern Tkeyboards Tinsert Too Tmany Ts Tinto Tour Twriting?

  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Wasn’t there some writer who insisted he wrote all his books on a Royal? The only issue is that we are so-o-o dependent on electricity to charge all that stuff. During a recent power outage, I re-discovered how much. I could read by flashlight, but not do much else. (Aw). Thanks for the mind bender, Gary. It kept me awake. Long day.

  4. Gary Says:

    Lil: my laptop has a cute little spotlight at the top of the screen, that can be switched on to illuminate the keyboard in total darkness. So I can still hunt and peck through the first 4 or 5 hours of an outage.

    After that it’s back to the stone age.

  5. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I’m so glad we have keyboards these days and that I had the Mavis Beacon program so that I can touch type. When I was at school I refused to learn to type, because at that time women who could type were all employed as secretaries. I’m glad I eventually learnt.

    Quite a long time after I was fluent on QWERTY I tried the Dvorak keyboard and stayed with it until I was nearly up to my QWERTY speed on it. It’s supposed to be kinder to your fingers and wrists but I found it gave my right little finger far too much of a workout, plus it’s rubbish when you use anyone else’s machine. So I changed back.

    QWERTY really isn’t ideal, but getting everyone to change to something better would be a real pain, even if we could all agree on what a better layout would be.

    I wouldn’t want to go back to writing with a pen and paper though. That’s far harder, especially when I’m tired and my scrawl is illegible even to me. And there’s no backspace key!

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, golly, what a group has gathered.

    Susanna, thank you for blowing to pieces my nice, comfortable little illusion about the keyboard. You’re right, of course — I should factor in mp3 files, earphones, music players, jet planes, the incandescent bulb, flu shots, other books and (ugh) other writers, Doris, MapQuest, British Petroleum, the imperialist swine rubber growers of Malaysia, Bill Gates, the mountain of decaying lithium-ion batteries burning a hole in the Earth’s surface, the Earth itself and all that in it doth dwell. And you left out coffee. So: Mexican peasants, African agricultural workers, roasters, the guys who make packages, Howard Schultz and everyone else at Starbucks, the Chinese worker suffering from lead poisoning who glazed my cup, and even more. If I were to stop writing, it suddenly occurs to me, the world’s economic structure would collapse.

    Gary — very interesting. I wonder whether it’s because of “the” and “it,” among other very very frequently used words. Still, it’s not like either of these is a new addition to the language; I mean, I’m sure they had “the” back when Arthur Conan Doyle had a body temperature. Maybe Doyle was wrong? Without computers, it’s kind of hard to see what how he determined that ranking.

    Lil, I had a Royal (an electric) until IBM invented the Selectric, with the little ball. I liked the Royal; it was a portable with its own little case (why don’t laptops come with their own little case?) and it only weighed about half a ton, so you could take it anywhere, as long as it was close and you had someone else to carry your typewriter. I can’t even think about life without electricity, although the possible lack of it is certainly a strong argument for paper books.

    Gary (again) my computer has a light, too, but it misses the keyboard and gives me a great view of my hands unless I tilt the screen so far forward I can barely see what I’ve typed. (I’m basically a four-finger/one thumb typist and I make bokoo mistakes.) NO ONE had better correct the spelling of “bokoo” and try to get back in here without a recently renewed whimsy license.

    FHH — MAVIS BEACON? As in MAVIS BEACON TEACHES TYPING? Isn’t it amazing, the detritus the mind obediently stores against the extremely unlikely moment when it will be necessary? You moved to a Dvorak keyboard, huh? That would probably drive me to suicide. For me to be able to write at all, I can’t need to give a moment’s thought to the mechanics of it. (This is exactly why I’ve never switched to the Mac, and I don’t want to hear a bunch of suggestions about how to get around the missing right-hand mouse button or the way the delete key works.) Windows has me because I don’t want to have to pay any attention at all to the process, so to speak, of word processing. I want to think directly onto the screen.

    Nice responses, all.

  7. EverettK Says:

    Tim said: (I’m basically a four-finger/one thumb typist and I make bokoo mistakes.)

    Four fingers? Gute Gott, Man (if you can misspell words, I can be a whimsical wise-ass, too), if you learned to type with all EIGHT fingers, you could write twice as many books in a year!!!

    Tray bone!

  8. Phil Hanson Says:

    Windows! Created by idiots for idiots. What’s not to like?

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Everett, I was told by my first (and actually only) writing teacher that learning to type was the smartest thing I could do for my writing, and I didn’t listen. So at a time like now, when I have to go back and correct a typo in every other word, I really hate myself. What I need, though, is not twice as many active fingers but twice as many active brain cells.

    Phil, I know — we’re all so undemanding and sort of goofy together. Kind of like Seattle minus the coffee.

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