Kage Baker – stubborn devotee of writing every day that she was – would sometimes admit to being defeated. Not often, mind you: even when with faced with almost insurmountable barriers to accomplishing anything authorly, Kage would bend all her considerable will into managing something.
Desperate hunts for something to write on and with occupied a lot of our travel time. It is, for instance, difficult to find somewhere in the tiny Northerm California town of Willits in which to purchase pen and paper. At least, it was in 1996 when we drove through there on a Sunday morning. We found a Safeway open, though, right beside Highway 101, and it carried big newsprint tablets (the kind with the blue dotted lines and bits of wood pulp in the paper) and 3 colours of felt-tip pens. That kept Kage going long enough to sketch the basic skeleton of “Merry Christmas from Navarro Lodge, 1928”, while we drove around Modesto and Fort Bragg.
We were always stopping somewhere in the middle of nowhere, trying to locate writing materials. It seemed that the further we were from anything more sophisticated than a 7-11, the more Kage had left at home. Fortunately, she eventually acquired her Buke tablet computer, which helped a lot. Then she only got desperate when she’d forgotten an adapter plug or a 500-foot long extension cord. But we usually carried those in the car, anyway.
Before the Buke, she just did the best she could. Story notes accrued on the end papers of science-fiction novels found under my car seat (there was always at least one), on the insides of yarn skein labels, on candy wrappers turned inside out. A portion of In The Garden of Iden was written in pencil on the inside of a flattened Good N’Plenty box; I’ve got story notes now on the backs of receipts from gas station snack stores up and down the length of California; envelopes covered inside and out; the edges of Chinese restaurant menus detailing lists of Company agents’ names.
I always tried to make sure I had a pad and a pen in my purse: and it had to be a pen Kage could write with, because some pens didn’t feel right. It had to be a fountain pen, or a Koh-i-noor Rapidograph – the big, fat black ones, not the skeletal technical pens they make now.( Kage liked the .50 point; which was broader and less spidery than the .70.) Or a really fine felt tip, which would only be acceptable when it was brand new and pointy; or a Pilot roller pen, when those were invented. As a kid, she liked those stubby half-size Bics that came in green and pink and purple, and smelled like cheap Easter jelly beans.
Kage hated ball point pens. She always wanted a Mont Blanc fountain pen. And what she wrote with at home (pre-computer) was usually a tabby plastic Cro-Quill pen staff with a brass nib pinched from the clerical stores closet at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, during the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had a Twinings Lapsang Soochong tea tin full of them; she used them with a bottle of Higgins Black Ink, from which she scattered miniscule black nebulae as she dipped and re-dipped her pen.
The pens available now would make her insane with greed, there are so many and so peculiar. Porsche makes a pen. MOMA makes a pen. Waterford Crystal makes a pen. Freaking Swarovski makes a pen! There are pens with roller tips like inch-wide paint rollers; pens with ink that changes colour; pens with ink that glows in the dark. There are pens with barrels made of glass, precious metals, rare woods, papier-mache, refractive plastic and corn starch.
She’d write with anything, though, if she had to. And on anything, too; both of us bore crucial lines – usually opening and closing lines – inscribed on palms, arms or knees for a few hours. I once drove I-5 in triple-digit heat with my window rolled down and my arm out in the hot wind, so I wouldn’t sweat off the opening lines of the birth of Gard that Kage had inscribed desperately on me in the rest stop just North of Buttonwillow. And none of this ever stopped her. She’d have written in blood if she’d had to; her own, I am sure. Almost sure …
After Kage’s tutelage, a mere paucity of materials has never stopped me, either. Even when all my electronic toys began croaking, one after the other, last month, I managed. I still have lots of pens, and reams of paper – not that horrid Corrase-able that was Kage’s favourite, and from which ink falls like dessicated ants, but good honest 20-pound Staples Dead Cheap Printer Crap. Not to mention that I have a thing about notebooks, so there are blank ones everywhere. No, all that stops me are actual physical disasters.
Last night, I rose from a late stint of research at my desk. I was studying ooparts, which are “out-of-place artifacts”: screws and gold chains inside chunks of Carboniferous coal. Ammonites with fish hooks in ’em. Dinosaur skulls sporting bullet holes. Most of these turn out to be cases of mistaken identity – what was thought to be an electronic coupling in a geode turns out to be a 1950’s spark plug in a ball of dried mud, for instance. Or they’re more a case of earnest hysteria than eagle-eyed treasure hunting. But now and again you find an inexplicable one, which might just be the seed of a story.
Anyway, I stood up in the dim light from my Kindle, mind far away in the Sahara on a supposed mosaic floor made of yellow glass. And I stepped on a cat. We have two, Dear Readers, and one of them is as black as the Earl of Hell’s weskit: with her eyes closed, she is invisible. So I stepped on her, she squalled, I leaped sideways and stepped smack on my rolling suitcase. It rolled and the frame bent, precipitating me sideways; my foot got stuck in my knitting basket and I made a very poor landing on one hip. Since my foot was in a basket, I promptly fell over and brained myself on the wooden edge of my bed.
The result of all this today is a scraped knee, a crunched toe, and a mild concussion. Plus, I need a new wheelie suitcase. My knitting basket, oddly enough, is unharmed; luckily, so is the cat. Then I dropped a loaded bagel on my keyboard this morning, and it took me half an hour to clean the cream cheese out of the keys. So it’s taken me 4 hours to write this little essay, and that’s as much as I can manage.
So I’m going back to bed, Dear Readers, to rest my aching head. I’ve enjoyed wandering the hallowed halls of pen and paper., especially once I had the computer functional and schmeer-free. I’ve even committed a few ideas to the files …
Kage often said, piously, it’s all grist for the writer’s mill. Nothing is wasted. Write it all down; stories, like roses, will grow in any old shit.