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Free Writing

Posted by todd on April 29, 2007

No conversation could be heard over the shuffling of paper, murmuring of poets working though rhyme schemes, and the dull thud of heads pounding against the tables.  You could smell the literature churning in the room, like old cream working its way towards artery-clogging butter.

The chamber was well over a hundred meters long, yet only five or six meters wide.  No windows could be found on the walls, and the only doors were to be found on the far walls.  The ceiling sagged low over the writers’ heads, adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere.  Flickering fluorescent tubes ran the length of the room on either wall, broken at random intervals only by the occasional supply closet or spartan toilet facilities.

To begin at one end and examine the faces of the authors at work would be a study in the effects of lifelong servitude to the written word.  The ages varied from barely in their teens to nearly a century old.  Yet only the smallest traces of distinction in care-worn wisdom varied in their demeanor.  Their faces craggy and unshaven, the eyes sunken, hands stained with inks. Yet amidst the sameness, certain sparks of individual traits emerge.  Here a poet softly sings as he writes.  There a youthful author of fantasy silently reads the work he just produced, his lips moving in sync with the dialogue.  One sits amid a pile of crumpled parchment, seeking the perfect metaphor and accepting no substitutes. Another scrawls frantically onto the page, as if his life depended upon setting the words in motion.  He stops only to ponder his next lines.  As he does, his eyes dart suspiciously from side to side and across the room.  Satisfied that he is alone in his revelations, he returns to the page, ink spattering on hands, table, and parchment alike.  The passion for my words is obvious.  I double-task, writing a bit on one set of pages, and then quickly shift to another set.  I swap one set to the bottom of the stack in paranoid fear whenever I pause.A favored few wore yellow ribbons draped over their shoulders.  These authors had written such elegant works the days previous that they were afforded special privileges.  They would be exempted from the peer review after the shift and would each receive an extra half ration at mealtime. Taking slow strides behind the authors seated along the long tables are the suppliers.  The lead broker, distributing and sharpening pencils, the inkboys, refilling inkwells as a waiter tops off water glasses, and the parchmen, resupplying all in need with fresh paper.  Theirs is not a specialty job, but a momentary diversion from writer’s block and a means to return circulation to their lower halves.

Milling about with slightly more purpose were the Readers.  Well-muscled men, armed with clubs and wearing a thick leathery armor studded with steel plates that had long since lost their metallic sheen.  They circled the room, occasionally peering over the shoulder of an author before moving along.  The writers have a defined tendency to intensify their work as a Reader approaches, tensing with varying levels of concern when one reviews his work.

They know all too well what happens when a Reader finds a disconcerting passage.  The pleas for mercy still resound in their ears, as does the image of the last fellow author dragged away to the far door.  Even if the Reader had not confiscated the offensive work, no nearby writer with any level of self-preservation would have tried to look.

The passage of time brought passages of art.

Hours later, from below, a resounding gong could be heard echoing through the chamber.  The next shift was being awakened.  In the next hour, they would be dressed, fed, and ready for their positions at the long tables to write.  For the authors above, they would spend this time in peer review and cleanup before they headed down to the communal sleeping area.

The authors understood the value of peer review time.  Not the value it held to them personally, or to the author whose work they reviewed, but its value to the Editor.  The Editor was acknowledged as the most highly educated and wise man in service to the Emperor.  Such was his wisdom that he knew that the best way to discover the best works and cull the dross was to have the authors themselves rate each other’s work. 

His wisdom also extended to the realization of conspiracies in such an environment, and the means by which to suppress such intolerable behavior.  Thus, it was that there was no speaking in the writing room or the sleeping quarters; it also justified an enforced system of random placement in each.  The peer review provided an additional deterrent; each manuscript was signed not only by the originator, but also by the reviewer.

The yellow-ribboned authors collect their pages and turn them in to the nearest Reader.  They collect waste bins and collect the wads of crumpled paper and broken pencils from the tables and floor.

Meanwhile the Readers go from author to author, directing the means by which their day’s work is to be swapped for the review.  Some pass to the left, some to the right, and some across the table.  I write my final thoughts and shift this page to the bottom of my stack.

A reader approaches my table and gives directions for the swaps.  I receive a pile from my neighbor to my left, passing mine to the author opposite and to the right.

His work seems to be a continuing narrative of an ancient hero, traveling through swamplands to reach the lair of some great beast.  I skim through it lightly, but my attention is on the fellow reading my work.

I know that the first few pages are tame: light poetry and haiku.  Even the quality is nothing to raise an eyebrow at, things I would have crumpled and tossed had I not needed them to cover my real writings.

Ah, I see he has come to the true work.  He glances quickly at me in confusion; I hastily lower my head.

I peer up over my glasses to read his expressions.  He is visibly uncomfortable.  I know what will come soon, yet I care not.  We are slaves here, with stories to tell, this story.  He reaches the final page and responds exactly as I predicted any of my surrounding authors would have, with a gasp of horror.  Even now, I can see that the terror in his eyes is only partially due to the content of my piece, but also due to how he involuntarily played into his scripted role.

Fast on the heels of his gasp, two Readers storm our table.   One snatches the manuscript from his hands, the other places a firm grip on my shoulder.  After a cursory glimpse over the last two pages, the Reader crosses around to my side of the table and I am hauled to my feet.

As I am dragged away, I can see that the Readers, in their haste, have forgotten my last page on the table.  If my last passage brings me death, then that is the passage from this world I choose.  I will share the passage with the others as they take me to my end…

“Free writing!”


2 Responses to “Free Writing”

  1. Todd said

    This marks the longest piece I have written in quite a long while, and the first complete piece for even longer. It began as a free writing exercise, called simply freewriting exercise #2 (it was the second). The #2 in conjuction with writing made me think about pencils, which led to pencil salesmen, slingng their wares to a group of writers. This concept morphed as I wrote more of the piece, but that it where the original seeds of creation came from. I hope you enjoy it.

  2. TAB Studio said

    I love you ! I am glad you are writing again. Tis good 😀

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