Women who type seem to be having a bit of a moment.
In ‘Mrs Wilson’ (2019), a British drama showing on the ABC, the titular character starts out as a typist admonished not to change anything as she transcribes, before marrying the man whose voice is on the recordings. In ‘The Typist’ (2018), a German mini-series currently available in Australia on SBS on Demand, the conservatively dressed older woman who types up interviews with suspects, is, to put it mildly, not as she seems. And ditto in the novel ‘Transcription’ (2018), the woman who types up meetings with fifth columnists, recorded by M15 during World War II, has a hand in even dirtier dealings which haunt her well after the war.
Who knew there was romance and mileage in characters who tap-tap-tapped away for a living?
I was inclined to like the only book in this list, as ‘Transcription’ is the latest novel by Kate Atkinson. It is not as devastating as her previous two, ‘Life After Life’ (2014) and ‘A God in Ruins’ (2015) which also have their roots in the war, but it was easy and fun reading, with lovely Atkinsonesque wordplay and a nice number of shocks.
Kate Atkinson is always worth quoting. So before I get to my point, I can’t resist quoting her on the subject of writing.
We know stories rely on carefully crafted language, a captivating voice and a strong plot, and Atkinson manages to have something to say about all the parts as she moves Juliet Armstrong’s narrative along.
On the importance of language and metaphors:
‘Don’t seek out elaborate metaphors,’ her English teacher had said of her school essays, but her mother’s death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief. It was a terrible thing and it demanded embellishment (p. 18).
On those pesky adverbs we are told again and again not to use:
Perry takes Juliet to the Roman ruins of Verulamium, the architecture of which he explains in painful detail. Says Perry (and I had to laugh),
… the mosaic covers the hypocast. ‘… – hypomeaning “beneath” and caust “burnt”. Which word do you think we get from that?’
‘I have no idea,’ she said, caustically. Not that he noticed. Adverbs were too subtle a part of speech for him. (p. 146-47).
And when the Icarus myth is discussed she makes comment on plot:
‘he’d flown too high and fallen. It was the perfect plot. In some ways it was the only plot’ (p. 186).
Maybe not the only plot yet the observation made me think…
But back to the thrust of my blog (and the meandering above clearly says something illustrative and meaningful about the importance of plotting well…).
Though I am a pen on paper writer – which is so old-fashioned I am embarrassed to type the fact of it here – I have to type my words eventually. I have no other women as assistants, or an on-tap amanuenses, to type my novels from my notebooks, not like Muriel Spark. I cannot even imagine such a luxury. (The fat book I have been reading off and on through my other entertainments, has been Martin Stannard’s 2009 biography of Muriel Spark, a book which will overshadow my thinking for a long time to come).
Consequently, the next part of the writing process is the constant tap-tapping on the laptop. I am of a generation of women who have been saved from the life of a typist. And yet I am of the generation who spends an awful lot of time typing.
So back to it. Not an a romantic Imperial typewriter, thank goodness, nevertheless typing in the manner of a latter-day heroine.
Feature image: Iris Joyce at work on her typewriter in an office prior to joining the Women’s Land Army in 1942, a photograph by a Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer.