Writing Despite the Obstacles
July 19, 2017 § 26 Comments
By Ann V. Klotz
How much do I really want to write this summer?
In early June, I finish an amazing on-line course with the incomparable Joelle Fraser in which I write faithfully every single day for ten weeks. The content of my memoir grows substantially. I write about my family’s century-long love affair with a tiny resort community in the Allegheny Mountains. I write about losing my brother one summer long ago, about creating a summer theatre program with my husband and then ending that program in that same time. I write about my mom’s death and how I still expect her to be on the porch when I arrive. I write and write. I struggle some with tension and conflict, try to set up more obstacles. Once school finishes, I’m going to take a stab at a real first draft; I’m going to use index cards to arrange what I have—three years plus a lifetime of material. I will write every day. By the end of the summer, which for the Head of a school means the first week of August, I’ll have a draft. I tell my teacher and my classmates as if by voicing my intention I will make it so.
Late one June afternoon, I return home from school. My son, twelve for another few weeks, says, “Mom, by accident, I spilled some iced coffee on your laptop this morning, but I cleaned it up.”
“Okay,” I answer, distracted by my father-in-law’s ill health, my husband at his bedside in another state. I am preoccupied with schoolwork still undone, by what to make for dinner. It is several hours before I open the laptop. The keyboard is sticky. I wipe it with a damp cloth. A moment later, I discover the shift key on the left doesn’t make a capital letter. Puzzled, I tap repeatedly. The letters cavort in a lowercase kick line. Like a trapped animal, gnawing on its own paw, I shift and over and over again, as if the act of repetition will suddenly remedy the problem.
I can’t make an appointment at the Apple store because I can’t shift in order to enter the capital letters of my laptop’s identification number. Suddenly, I discover there is another shift key on the right. Jubilation. I make an appointment. My son, worried now, accompanies me. A few nights ago, I had dropped his phone on flagstones, shattering the screen. The fast-talking young man warned us of dire possibilities; my son might lose all his pictures of his cat, might lose his high scores on various games, but in the end, the repair was uneventful. Everything was fine. With this in mind, I take my place at the genius bar feeling hopeful. My kind tech helper appears.
Coffee in the keyboard? His smile dims. He offers to send it away for days and days; it will cost $500. I might need a new computer; moisture isn’t a good thing. A new computer is only $1200. He smiles again, encouraging.
“I’m a writer,” I think. “I’m traveling. I can’t be without my laptop. This is my month! $500? $1200? At a moment when our expenses are already too high? No way.” I droop. We leave the shiny store.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” says my son.
I vanquish glum self-pity, reassure him that accidents happen. I phone my husband, guilty about bothering him with something as dumb as my keyboard while his father drifts in and out of consciousness.
He recommends rice, so we immerse the whole laptop in a rice soak, burying it deep in a baking dish. In the morning, the left shift key remains broken, as is the control key. I head to Pennsylvania to drop my son off at my sister’s, then drive back to Cleveland and fly to Washington, D.C. for a conference. My father-in-law grows weaker, slips away. I focus on how irritated I am with my computer.
In a bland hotel room in D.C., “I like writing by hand,” I tell myself, knowing it’s a lie. I cry. The shift key and grief. I can’t untangle them.
I try to teach my fingers how to shift on the right. It is the summer of 1975, and I am in Mrs. Romanofsky’s typing class at Lower Merion High School: “A-S-D-F-space; J-K-L-semi-colon-space,” she intones, blonde hair curled tightly and sprayed in a bouffant up-do, an imposing creature towering over minions at typewriters. My brother died later that summer, so I never finished the class, but I learned enough to trust my fingers without thinking about where they needed to go on a keyboard. I am fast and mostly accurate. I crank out emails, letters to families, notes, first drafts quickly. But now, clumsy, I fumble, impatient with my errors, tense.
I ask my husband, home again, to look at the offending key. He who can fix anything, especially computers, removes the key, cleans underneath with a toothpick, gets it to work, briefly, then declares it still broken. Some things can’t be mended. He offers ideas to try once get to Pennsylvania, to the house that is the center of my memoir.
For the past several years, in the middle of the night, my father-in-law would sometimes phone, frantic: “Seth, Seth—“ he would cry, oblivious to the hour. My patient husband would, long distance, soothe his dad, and solve the problem. My broken key is not a desperate situation, merely an annoyance.
I adapt, revise my practice. My computer automatically capitalizes the first letter of a new sentence and almost always makes ‘I’ capital, so that’s a gift. It is tempting to hold a grudge against the shift key, but this is my month.
Finally arriving in Pennsylvania for our fleeting summer, I take my laptop to the porch and begin.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night. Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats. She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.