Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Paper Days

It's funny - I think about this a lot, but it never occurred to me until recently to write about it.

I don't remember a lot about my youth.  I can't even blame Alzheimers.  I just don't remember a lot of what happened.  Maybe my childhood was so boring I've blanked it from my mind, I don't know.

But there are a few moments I remember.  Some of them good.  Not all of them.  But most of them have something to do with writing.

I still remember what these smell like.
When we lived in Peterborough (age 5-7?), I remember writing and drawing on papers my mother used to get for free from the grocery store.  I must have been in kindergarten at the time.  She was trying to get me to stop writing on the walls.  Whenever she bought a roast, they would wrap the meat in paper, but she would always ask for four or five extra sheets, so that the outer layers would stay clean, and I could use them for drawing.  Come to think of it, I remember the smell of the paper too, and I think I began to associate creativity with hot, yummy beef.  And of home - specifically, my bedroom, where I could sit in peace and play by myself.  I had rainbow crayons then, too - and I thought those were the most awesome things, because I could draw rainbow-unicorns with a single stroke of the crayon!

I remember Christmas and birthday presents of lined notepaper - sometimes as much as four hundred pages in a pack!  My family wasn't giving me cheap presents; they were giving me room to dream.

Back in Oshawa (ages 7-9 or 10), I wrote my first "full length" story.  It was thirty-seven pages long.  I even illustrated it myself!

And because they knew I was a writer, the teachers of my school let me go to the assembly for Grade Fives and Sixes (even though I was only Grade Three at the time).  They thought I would be interested in it, even though it was a bit old for me.

"Interested"?!  It was Gordon Fricking Korman! 

Twenty-eight years later, I still remember listening cross-legged on the cold gymnasium floor listening to him tell us how his editor used to call him up and say "You have to cut this part out," and how Korman would always reply "But that's the best part!", and how, at the end of the conversation, all the parts were the best parts.
I don't think I closed my mouth once the whole time. 

(For the record, his books were the rare few I actually read.)  By my rough math, he couldn't have been anymore than 20 years old at the time, but to me, he was something ancient and untouchable that had fallen out of heaven.  

And it wasn't until today that I found out he'd grown up in Montreal!

Then we moved away (again).  That's one thing I remember about my childhood.  All the times we moved.  After awhile, I stopped crying about losing my friends and just focused on making new ones when I got to wherever we landed next.  More often than not, I would leave with a story half-written, and finish writing it once we were moved in.  It helped to give me a measure of continuity.  Finishing a story and moving in the same month gave me too clean and too jarring of a break between "past" and "future."

I hate to mention this out loud (sorry, Mother), but I hated growing up in Kincardine, Ontario (aged 10-12, I think).  I had only one or two friends, and they didn't like to play a lot.  Most of my school friends lived out in the countryside, and we didn't have a car.  And since we lived in a housing project on the edge of farmland, there wasn't a whole lot to do, especially without friends.  I used to roll balls of wool, and play Monopoly by myself, to ease the boredom.  If I had liked to read, it would have been a fantastic childhood, I think.

But when I had blank paper...

I clearly recall sitting on the floor at the base of the steps between the front hall and the sunken living room, with an open three-ring binder resting three steps up.  I loved, loved, loved odd-numbered pages, because I could write on them without having to contend with the rings under my wrist.  I wrote about superheroes and unicorns and aliens, and once I even wrote about how a scary Communist could co-operate with a French-speaking spy to save lives.  (This was before the Wall fell, boy am I old, and I always find it weird that twenty-five years later I'm building on ideas I had so long ago.)  Spring, summer, fall, winter, it did not matter.  I could sit there all afternoon, listening to the radio while my mother crocheted, and I could write until my hands fell off.

Metal finger traps.
Around those same years, my mother bought a manual typewriter - I think she bought it at an auction over at the Complex...Anyhow, she brought it home, along with some Teach Yourself to Type book.  Then she presented it to me - after having blanked out all the keys with electric tape.  She wanted me to learn how to touch-type.

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the start of my most exciting summer vacation ever.  No.  Honest.  It was the '80s equivalent of an eleven-year-old sitting down to program utility software in C++, because there is literally nothing better to do...

I didn't do a lot of keying exercises on the old typewriter (aaa...asa...asdsa...asdfdsa...sss...sds...GAH - MAKE IT STOP!), but it did seem to give me an unfair advantage when I took typing in high school. (And electric typewriters were sooooo much easier on my pinkie fingers than that manual ever was.)

But then I got to meet another awesomely famous supercool author, whose name now eludes me.  She did a workshop on pop-up books.  She taught us everything we needed to know about how to make the mouths of monsters chomp when you folded and opened the book.  She taught us how to animate exciting chase scenes by having cardboard cutouts slide back and forth on strips of poster board.  I created Denny the Dragon (with real shooting flames!  made out of real orange and red construction paper and everything!) and I created Mr. Doobie, the annoying ghost that lived in my mother's upstairs closet, totally not realizing I had named the phantom after some funny-smelling cigarettes.
And then I wrote my next "full length" story (mostly on the stairs going down into the living room).  It was almost a hundred pages long - and someone actually typed it up for me.  My teacher submitted it to a contest for me.  I didn't win anything except honourable mention - for being so prolific!  Some things never change.

Oregon Trail.  Boy, this brings back dull memories.
And as for computers, at that time they were only good for two things:  Logo Turtle - a programming language for kids - and Oregon Trail - some game about pilgrims crossing the prairies.  I was the only one of three kids in the school who passed the programming test for Turtle.  (*siiiiiigh*)

Then we moved back to Oshawa (age 12-19).  Unfortunately, I remember a great deal about being in Grade Eight, most of which I'll probably never write about.  But there are still some few pleasant memories that I recall.

Outside our excruciatingly tiny basement apartment on Myers Street, there was a pear tree.  After a massive spring storm, the tree broke at the base, but it continued living on the one side.  When life was at its worst, I used to hide under the boughs of the fallen pear tree and be utterly surrounded by leaves.  I couldn't see anything else; I couldn't see the house where I lived, I couldn't see the neighbourhood, I couldn't see the rusty cars parked on the side of the street.  I used the limbs of the trees to hold my construction paper and poster board and markers while I designed more pop-up books.

But during this time, I stopped writing about happy, bounding ghosts and their friends, and started writing about gunmen, muggers, and real dragons that swooped out of the sky and consumed my enemies with liquid fire.

Despite all that, though, I still recall reclining in the arms of the fallen but flowering pear tree, writing.  My shelter.  My secret hiding place.  My all-natural office.

In high school, we moved into the basement of my aunt and uncle's house.  Writing was still my escape, though year after year, I was also determined to get something published.  And our household technology did, in some ways, help out with that.  First, we upgraded to a daisy-wheel electric typewriter (and BOY, was that thing loud).  Then we got a one-line word processor.  I could write away, then hit a print key and a bazillion letters would appear on the line before coming to a screeching halt.  I still preferred hand-writing most of my stories while lying on my stomach on my bed, feet up and crossed at the ankles over my backside, while listening to the Best of Louis Armstrong.  Oh, the stories I wrote then - stories about shape-changers, aliens, mutants...the Fog of Dockside City, Hawkeshaw...Packs of lined paper were reserved for school now; no, my new best friends were folders with stylized dragons and wolves on them, and later, anonymous (non-geeky) spiral bound notebooks.  Every blank notebook was an unexplored universe.

Anybody else remember the high-pitched whistle?
Then came the computers.

I fondly recall a trek through the galaxy on a multi-species cargo ship called Pilgrim's Ark.  I wrote on our first computer, an XT.  I had to launch Microsoft WordPerfect by a DOS command!  I even remember having to use the F-keys to highlight text and change it to italics.  I used to change the screen colours so that the background was black, the letters were white, italics were highlighted in a disgusting purple shade, bold in green...Filenames that could only be 8 characters long and contain no spaces...Man, those were the days...

I used to write fan fiction, too, all the time.  And when I say "millions of words" of fan fiction, you can believe me.  Boy, this is embarrassing but...*kaf*...I had a thing for The Flash, The Rocketeer, and the Shadow.  (GEEEEEEEEK...)

In our day, we used to call Wikipedia "Books!"
I used to have to save each chapter in a different file; and after awhile the stories got to be so long I'd have to put one book on two 5 1/2 floppy disks!  Then along came the amazing 3 1/4 disks, and I could put more stories on a single disk!  I lost count of all the disks I had.  New, bigger computers meant longer, more vivid stories.  I was connected to technology for hours on end while my mother sat on the couch beside me, watching the TV; I had enormous headphones plugged into the cassette player / turntable on my left, disk in the drive, keyboard smoking, and an orange-curtained basement window above me on the right.  That was before we moved the computer into my room, in time for me to co-found the high school newspaper.

I wasn't writing exclusively at home - at least, not in the mornings.  I came into the high school computer room about an hour before first class, and with such regularity that once, our high school science teacher posted a sign on the computer room door saying, "Patti, you're late!"  It was 8:15.  School started at nine.

And because I was in there so often, I was the school's IT group.  Gosh, I don't know how many times I had to clear a printer conflict on the network...and no matter how often I wrote out a manual, people still found ways of breaking the laser printer.

I didn't mind.  I got paid in free access to ink and paper.  I think I still have some of the dot-matrix manuscripts kicking about.  Lord knows - as do some of my unwitting moving partners - I've carried them around long enough from one place to the next.

I even took on my first "writing contract" for a friend of mine.  Young Mr. Jim Zubkavich asked me to type out a story he and his friends had put together - a kind of D&D tale.  I had a BLAST...even though I didn't understand a quarter of the inside jokes.  Now that guy is like some kind of world-famous comic book creator guy or something, and I design databases for a living.  (Recently, he gave me the first season of Skullkickers for free, and they're really, really good, so when I say there's no jealousy here, I mean it.)  (Okay, maybe just a little bit of jealousy, but the pride I have for my old classmate is, like, a bajillion times stronger.)

In university, not much changed.  I didn't write much that wasn't "for the sake of publication", though I did another crack at Hawkeshaw and nearly landed an agent.  But writing was my escape, especially during first and second year university.  It was my sanity.  Nothing gets rid of anxiety, stress and near-homicidal frustration like shooting up vampires, werewolves and zombies, or like making their heads explode using psychic powers.  And nothing gets the brain firing like a 9:00 a.m. deadline on an essay I don't want to write. 

Loved it so much I destroyed two of them!

But in the second and third year of university, I was working full-time (and part-time with the Canadian Army Reserves), working mostly evening and midnight shifts.  Uneventful swing shifts, plus my first Journada (the precursor to a netbook), was like splashing gasoline on an open flame.  I filled floppy disks at an extraordinary rate - while still maintaining a geekly-high GPA (because I had literally nothing better to do...).  During those years, I discovered I could write radio plays.  Since I wasn't sleeping for weeks on end, this seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to do.

Not mine.  But almost as bad as mine.
Then, university done, and literally nothing better to do, I took a course at Durham College:  a certain creative writing course as taught by Tobin Elliott.  I'd been working away on a brand new laptop - a real, live, battery-sucking laptop.  I wanted Tobin to check something on my computer, and the first thing he saw was that there was no paint left on most of the keys.  Sweaty fingers had done to my laptop what my mother had done to the keys of that first manual typewriter.  On my laptop, the space bar wasn't just polished from use - it was dented.

So there you have it.  In all the craziness that was my youth, all the moves, the new schools, the friends gained and lost, there has been one constant

I leave you with one final memory.  I've probably written it before, but it's important to say it again.

During high school, I came out here to Montreal, staying only a few blocks away from where I live now.  I was hired by a family to work as a live-in babysitter for one full-month. It was the most formative adventure of my life and of my career.  Much of who I am today is because of that month.

I wrote constantly in my free hours.  I wrote in my journal.  I wrote Scarlet Unseen - a story about a girl who could turn herself invisible and walk through walls.  I wrote stories for the kids I was looking after.  And one afternoon, I took the kids (all five of them) to the park, and while I watched them from a park bench, I gabbed in my journal about the unfairness of life.

An older gentleman came and sat beside me.  He had sad, rheumy, turtle-eyes, a stooped walk and a bittersweet but wincing smile.  His clothes were too big for him.  He told me a story about a friend of his, who was slowly dying and in constant pain.  "I asked him," he said, "'how do you survive all this pain?'  The answer was, 'I write.'"  Then he smiled at me, bid me good day, and limped away.

Publication is not the point.  Making sense of the world while escaping from it - that's why I write.


  1. It's nice to get some extra insight into young Pat's life. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. You really HAVE been writing forever, haven't you? And what Mike said. A hella good read, my friend.

  3. Great post, Pat! Love the ending - almost had to get a tissue out!