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Without a Pencil to Chew On

by Mimi Winer, Wayland, Massachusetts

Even before I began keeping a diary at age nine, I loved the physical experience of putting words onto paper. I vaguely recall encountering the first of my many writing tools when the teacher handed out fat red pencils on day one of elementary school. At that time (circa 1936), children in the lower grades did not tote backpacks to school.

By second grade, we carried a two-drawer pencil box instead. Along with a pencil sharpener, the top drawer contained several number two yellow wooden pencils--each tipped with a pink eraser. The other drawer held a pair of blunt scissors, a six-inch wooden ruler, and a tube of glue. I don't remember ever using anything from the second drawer, but the moment I opened the top drawer and my fingers touched those yellow pencils, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

In the early years, I wrote in longhand. Sometimes I added penciled notes in the margins. Whenever I was stuck, I sharpened a new pencil and chewed on it for inspiration. This ritual generally awakened my muse. After arming myself with the pencil's rubber tip, I would attack my manuscript and, breathing a sigh of relief, blow the erased debris away.

At about age twelve, I added a bottle of blue ink and a fountain pen to my writing equipment. (Ballpoint pens had not yet arrived on the scene.) Before moving on to pen and ink for revisions, I wrote drafts with my faithful yellow pencil.

During my sophomore year in high school, I learned touch typing. My reward for this diligence was my very own Smith Corona manual typewriter. Now I could write stories that looked more like the print I saw in magazines and books. I set my margins at one-and-a-quarter inches, indented five spaces for the first line of each double spaced paragraph, and transcribed my copy onto manuscript-quality paper. Typing final revisions was not easy. I used a "correctable" paper that facilitated error erasures. However, sometimes this procedure did not work well enough. If the results looked messy, I had to retype the entire page.

For me, the process of writing was a visual one. Punctuation marks, sentences, length of paragraphs, the entire layout of a manuscript came from my visual judgment of what appeared aesthetically appropriate. Although I did not know it then, my approach to writing would change dramatically over time.

In 1962, I suffered a flu-like illness, which resulted in a partial loss of sight. This sudden visual disturbance made typing manuscripts more tedious, but it gave me an excuse to buy myself a present. Encouraged by having won a few writing awards and having sold a couple of magazine articles, I treated myself to a new Smith Corona electric typewriter with a whiteout correction cartridge. This modern innovation somewhat compensated for my less than perfect vision. If I made a mistake, I no longer had to retype the whole page. Removing the black ribbon and replacing it with the whiteout cartridge allowed me to correct errors by typing over them.

As the years progressed, my sight continued to deteriorate. I could barely see what I was writing. Rather than multiple cramped sentences, a few enormous words now sprawled across an entire page. I began writing drafts with a black bold point pen and switched from my updated Smith Corona to a large-print typewriter for revision work. I could read what I had written, but submitting manuscripts to editors in this format was not acceptable.

One joyous day, a machine known as a "closed circuit television reading system" arrived at my office. It occupied my entire desk. This state-of-the art reading/writing device for people with low vision had two magnifying lenses which made print appear enlarged. One lens, focusing on my draft, gave me a view of what I had already typed. The other allowed me to read the typing of the current revision. This ingenious setup extended my writing career for a few more years. Unfortunately, the giant print could not keep up with my ever-diminishing eyesight. My childhood ritual of sharpening a pencil and chewing on it for inspiration no longer worked.

Although adaptive computer technology for the blind had been available for several years, I was slow in embracing it. In the late 90s, along with complete vision loss, I developed tremors in both hands. Despite my excellent typing skills, my fingers would not cooperate. Unbeknownst to myself, I was producing multiple unintelligible keystrokes. Confrontation with this dual disability and my need to write forced me to give up old habits and move forward.

Thanks to assistance from our state agency for the blind and the wonders of modern technology, my writing tools have morphed into what I consider a blind writer's nirvana. I have traded my pencils for a tiny audio digital notetaker and my typewriter for a computer that talks to me as I type.

The necessity of having to type text and execute all commands via the keyboard while I listen to audio feedback has distinct advantages. Unlike sighted writers, who have the ability to use a mouse, my hands rarely leave the keyboard. I believe this uninterrupted hand-to-brain connection gives my creative juices a more natural flow.

I wonder how I ever thought that writing was a purely visual craft. Now that I have converted from visual to audible, I find getting unstuck with my writing--even without a pencil to chew on--is the way to go.


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