Mrs. Granger was my grade nine typing (we called it “keyboarding”) teacher. She had perfect grey curls, a voice that could rap like a ruler, and a spine as straight as a steel girder. She was never less than immaculately dressed. And when I saw her at a reunion last spring, she looked exactly the same as she had twenty-five years before.
And she gave me a wonderful gift. She taught me to type.
We had electronic typewriters then, no computers. And the keys were covered over in pink and orange nail polish, so we couldn’t cheat by looking at the letters. For the first couple of weeks, there was a chart at the front of the classroom. Then there wasn’t.
It wasn’t the most exciting class on offer. F-F-F. J-J-J. F-F-F. J-J-J. But boy, did I learn my way around a keyboard. Useful skill for a novelist.
And now I’ve discovered a new way to use it.
I’m taking a writing course online, and the first assignment was to retype an action scene by a writer you admire. I groaned when I read that. Who has time for retyping?
I tried to think of a nice, short scene, but really, I knew all along what scene I would choose. The opening of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn. I hadn’t read it in a while, but I remember thinking at the time that the James Bond movie folks had nothing on Mr. Oppel.
Eager to get the assignment over with, I started typing from the beginning. And I discovered something strange.
Retyping his words forced me to read them differently. To feel them. I noticed things like punctuation, and how many lines were spent on description compared to action. I didn’t think about these things, or stop to analyze. I just… noticed.
And when I got the rhythm of it, when I could hold a sentence in my mind and type it into my Word document without having to glance back again, something even stranger happened. The scene started building itself in my mind, line by line. I saw what was happening with more detail and depth and real-ness than I’ve ever experienced while just reading. The scene was soaking up into my fingers, or coming down through them. It was hard to tell the difference.
Retyping Kenneth Oppel’s words forced me to slow down my reading and experience the text in a way that I don’t usually manage when I’m just reading. I read too quickly, maybe — skimming over the words to get at the story. Typing forced me to give the words a chance to be noticed. And instead of getting in the way of the story, that enriched it.
I’d heard before that typing out passages from your favourite books was a good idea — a way to absorb craft at a physical level. Now, if I were to start writing like Kenneth Oppel that would be lovely, but I’m not going to hold my breath. I don’t really think it works that way, and besides, I need to find and use my own voice. But I do have a new appreciation for his work at a line-by-line level, and that can’t be a bad thing.
I’m not sure I’ll make a habit of this. It took me a good long while to retype that chapter, and I have manuscripts of my own that are crying out for some keyboard time. But every now and then, when I’m reading a book and I love the language, or a scene really grabs me, maybe I’ll try this again. Retyping someone else’s work to experience it differently and, if I’m really lucky, start to notice how the magic is being made.
Sounds weird, I know. But trust me. Give it a try.
Even if you get nothing else out of it, you’ll be making your typing teacher proud.