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  • Writer's pictureLori Callan

The Perilous Life of the Artist

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Or: How Keyboarding Skills Might One Day Prove Fatal

In days of old, a gifted writer was often supported financially by a patron of the arts. It worked out well. The patron had more money than he/she knew what to do with, and could get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the knowledge he was feeding a starving artist. The generous patron could also expect to see his name surrounded by the most flattering prose in the front of the writer’s most recent masterpiece. The writer, in turn, was fortunate enough to eat. (And to write, of course).

When, as a teenager, I announced to my mortified parents I intended to live the life of the tortured poet (I already dressed completely in black, and owned all of Leonard Cohen’s latest work – what else did I need?), my mother had three words of advice: “Learn to type.”

Whether it was my innately practical nature (I was born a Capricorn, and one can only fight one’s true disposition so far), or a desire to appease the loving people who stood before me with their chins firmly planted on the floor, I can’t say for sure. But the following semester, I placed a checkmark beside Typing 101, and I haven’t looked back since.

Every so often, life forces us to be brutally honest with ourselves. Without my lightening speed on the keyboard, armed only with my glowing wit and my menagerie of words, might I have fed myself, my family, and my hunger for the written word? The brutally honest answer is No.

This point was driven home most forcefully when I recently visited a temporary employment agency, with hopes of providing for my family something more than the forty dollars I’ve earned as a writer over the last several years. With meticulous attention to detail, I prepared a resume outlining my business experience, computer skills, keyboarding speed etc. (I know you’re yawning right about now – believe me, I was too).

I was, of course, delighted when this part of the exercise was complete because now I could explain my real achievements: a master’s degree in the study of English literature (which took fourteen years to complete because I’d spent all my daylight hours honing those keyboarding skills in order to bring home the peameal); numerous writing workshops; a completed novel (as yet unpublished); a novel just begun; various published poems and articles.

At last I was finished! Ready to face the world of temporary employment, my life’s achievements firmly in hand (even if tucked away at the bottom of my resume). And so I walked through the glass doors of the employment agency, confidently placed my impressive list of accomplishments on the reception desk, and awaited the inevitable questions and comments about the writing life. I mean, how many wannabe-novelists do these people see on a daily basis? Surely, I was something of a curiosity at least?

First, I was told I must complete some important testing. All my claims to computer usage fame needed to be verified. And so I sat for approximately two hours in front of computer screens that timed and evaluated every click of the mouse, every keystroke tapped out. And then to the pencil and paper tests:

Tree is to forest as pencil is to a) pen, b) eraser, c) package, d) paper.

Is ‘embarrassed’ spelled correctly? Yes, I knew that one.

Is ‘humiliate’ spelled correctly? Yes, that one too.

Is ‘humbel’ spelled correctly? Something deep within my mischievous soul beckoned me to leave the word as it was on the page – in all its ugly corruption. But I resisted the temptation, swallowed my pride and gave them what they wanted.

Finally, my testing complete I was led into an interview room, where I was seated alone, eagerly contemplating the dialogue to follow. Might the interviewer wonder about my novel’s title: Her Own Words? Would she assume its feminist position? Or the poetry, perhaps? Would she ask if I had a copy for her to peruse? Would she wonder out loud, what it’s like to create pictures with words? Or what the creative process does for my particular soul? I closed my eyes, pondering her questions-to-be, formulating an answer that might be deemed coherent, if not altogether perfectly articulated.

And then my moment arrived. Through the clear glass walls I watched the perky representative approach my interview cubicle. And did she look pleased! Waving my file above her head, she bounded through the transparent door, slapped my paperwork down on the desk, and bestowed upon me a hearty “Congratulations!”.

I must say I was impressed with this agency’s speed. Clearly, they’d found me a position already, based on my very own unique mix of skills and talents. So there were corporations out there looking for people with a creative flair! My deep cynicism about the business world would just have to cease, and immediately! I took out my pen, eager to get down the details about where I’d be going to work the next day. The perky one and I could get down to discussing the writing life after we’d pushed the business out of the way.

“Congratulations!” She repeated herself. She was that excited. “You have a typing speed of 87 words per minute! And a data entry speed of 12,367 keystrokes! Do you know that works out to 3X the average score?! And not one spelling error! You scored perfect!”

I shifted my gaze from the paper in front of me to her smiling face, returned my pen to my purse, stood, and thanked her for her time. That was two weeks ago. We haven’t shared a word since.

Surface & Symbol,

January, 2002

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