The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Type Rider

The Art and Science of Paying Attention (Printers Row Lit Fest, Chicago, IL). Photo by Maya Stein

When most people turn 40, they throw themselves a birthday party. When writer and poet Maya Stein turned 40, she got on her bicycle and began a 40-day trip from Amherst, Massachusetts, to Milwaukee, toting a typewriter behind her in a little red wagon. Her “Type Rider” project had officially begun.

Every day, Stein set up the typewriter in a different town, inviting the community to sit down and write for a spell. After her trip, which ended June 13, Stein plans to combine the communal writings into a book, which she envisions as “the great American poem.”

When we spoke with Stein, she was on her way to Chicago, where she had been invited to set up her typewriter at the Printers Row Lit Fest. Before she set out for the day’s ride, she talked with us about how she conceived the project, and what's it's shown her about community engagement.

NEA: Let’s talk about the beginning of the project. How did the idea for the Type Rider first develop?

Maya Stein: It actually came out of that sketch that has become the project logo. I was sitting around with a friend of mine in her living room last fall in Vermont. I had just gone to the typewriter store where I did eventually buy the typewriter for the project. But I had been musing about the typewriter for a while, and I was kind of just rolling around the word in my head. And then it became two words, “type”; “rider.”  I did this quick sketch of this woman on a bicycle who’s towing a typewriter, and I thought, “Why in the world would somebody do that?”

And then I remembered an experience from my childhood, where my dad would take his typewriter in this space that connected all our bedrooms and start a short story. Every night my sister and I would read [what he had written], sit down, and type out some lines. That continued over the next few years as a kind of unfolding, collaborative story. [This project] was really just to recreate this experience, but on a broader scale, where anybody could participate. It wouldn’t necessarily be lines that follow each other, but more of a weaving of stories.

NEA: Do you type out the first few lines in every city and then have people take it from there?

STEIN: For this, I write a very short writing prompt---just a few words, really. Something like “No matter what…” or “My mother always…” or “What they didn’t tell me.” They’re sentence openers. Some people sit down for a minute or so, because they can finish the sentence very quickly, but more often than not, people find themselves compelled to sit there for a while. It becomes more of a narrative that they’re offering about something that happened to them, or something they believe, or a message to others. It’s a very open-ended beginning; it helps to jog a story loose. It’s interesting to see how people approach it, how much time they spend, how introspective they become. And what I offer is a way of finding, because I don’t think that many people like to sit down to a blank page.

Scene from a Marriage: Lois and Tom (Kenosha, WI). Photo by Maya Stein

NEA: What kind of portrait do you think will emerge from this collection of voices from across the country?

STEIN: One of the surprises, as I keep traveling and doing this every day, is that there are so many commonalities between people, in terms of what they’re thinking about, what they wish for. There are a lot of thoughts about family, and importance of family, and gratitude for what people have. I’m actually really heartened that so many of the writings that have come out are people reflecting on how lucky they are. It’s interesting that in this climate, where there’s so much uncertainty, and a feeling of scarcity, or, “What’s going to happen to my job?” that there’s a kind of center that holds people together.

I’ve also been surprised, in a good way, to see when kids sit down, when teenagers sit down, or young adults sit down, the complexity of thought about their circumstances, and their ability to find themselves in a world of so much distraction. There’s a sense of real identity.

In addition to the commonalities, there’s a willingness to disclose a story. What I’m discovering is that people are quite hungry to share. Part of the reason that this feels important is because, in terms of the typewriter and how it’s being delivered, is that in that growing world of online connections, I think there’s a way that it’s been disconnecting us, and misconnecting us. What I’m seeing is that we still have this capacity, and a great desire, and willingness, and ability to make connections. It takes very little, but it does take “Hello,” and it does take “How are you?” It’s so important to experience that on a face-to-face level. I’m getting a lot of feedback that that is one of the things that people are really appreciating about this. They like having that personal contact. I see this in my daily experience: I have this solitude on the bicycle, and then there’s this space where I’m connecting with people and getting their stories. And then there’s the reflective part of the day, where I look at it in the grander context of things. But you need that middle part, it’s what makes everything work, that there’s a person to connect with, a story to share.

NEA: Is that why you decided to tote along a typewriter? In terms of practicality, a laptop would have been easier to manage.

STEIN: For me, the physicality of using the typewriter felt important. Most people know how to type quickly on a computer, but they haven’t had the experience of typing on a typewriter in a long time if they’re a certain age, or ever, if they’re younger than that. So they immediately become engaged with the typewriter in a way that is totally different from a computer. I’ve noticed this in my own experience with it. When I bought the typewriter, I started using it, and writing on it. It’s a much more contemplative and interactive tool. And it’s fun for people. They love finding the keys, and they get frustrated and laugh at themselves---“Where’s the backspace!”  They make mistakes all the time, and it’s a way of forgiving themselves, because it’s messy. You can’t erase anything, everything is out in the open. It’s a way for them to be messy and not feel bad about it.

NEA: The bulk of this project is very traditional, maybe old-fashioned: you’re riding a bicycle, you have the typewriter, you’re camping along the way. Yet the project was funded through Kickstarter, which is a very modern, technologically savvy way to fund things. Could you talk about how the digital age can coexist with the desire for a return to simplicity?

STEIN: This project couldn’t have happened without technology, without social networking, without Facebook. This was a very community built effort, but I didn’t know 50 percent or more of my funders. It’s a very interesting blend of technology, and I think it’s why, in some ways, people have been supporting it. It’s a simplicity that takes much more work, it’s not efficient at all, but I think there’s that appeal, too: it’s a throwback, nostalgia. It’s remarkable to be able to use technology in this way. This is my second Kickstarter project, and it’s a great tool to get people involved, who normally I wouldn’t have intersected with. This particular project has had a far broader impact than I could have anticipated. It’s amazing that these people are writing to me and saying, “Please come visit our bike shop in Milwaukee.” Yesterday I had a totally surreal experience of biking down this road on my way to Elkhart, Indiana, and being waved at. And it was a man and his grandson who had stopped by the side of the road. They had read about me that morning in their local paper, and they wanted to welcome me to Indiana and give me a quart of strawberries. It brought tears to my eyes that this speaks to people on that level, that they want to welcome me… It fascinates me, and I’m totally humbled. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how this has been affecting people. This could have only happened because of Kickstarter and Facebook, and Twitter. It would have taken a whole lot longer to put this project together [without them].

Mohawk Meets Remingon (Detroit, MI). Photo by Maya Stein

NEA: Why do you think this project is affecting people so powerfully?

STEIN: It started as an idea, a kind of whimsical idea, but it became a reality because I did something about it every day. And for people who have dreams about something, or have been chewing on something for a long time, this is a way for them to understand and be re-inspired by that dream and take steps toward it. I keep thinking about the great metaphor of the bicycle and the rotation of the gears; I think about this trip in terms as one rotation at a time. I can’t think about the hill until I get there; I can’t really prepare for it. I have to be on the hill before I know how it feels, but I can adjust to its incline. Often, people are overwhelmed by what they think they have to do in order to meet a dream, and it feels untouchable because it’s so far away. On that level, they see me get on the bicycle every day, and continue to do it, continue to do it, and the path unfolds as I get on it.

I also think there’s peace in storytelling and connecting, and building community, and meeting your neighbors, and sharing creativity with people that you wouldn’t necessarily think to share with. It’s so weird to capture the experience of watching people at this typewriter and the way that they soften and yield to their own voice as they type. Then they get up and something has become unburdened; they’re lighter when they get up. I don’t quite know why or how that works, but they walk away softer. When there are more people around the typewriter, and they’re interacting with each other, there’s no agenda, there’s no one-upmanship. It’s a very equalizing experience for everybody. I love seeing kids typing. I think that they open up the most because they have never encountered this machine before, they’re exploring, discovering as they go. What I’m seeing when parents and kids are there is that it’s a way for parents to impart some of their nurturing on their kids. There’s something that happens that brings them a little closer to each other.

NEA: You touched on this, but could you talk about how writing, which is generally a solitary act, can be a unique tool for collaboration?

STEIN: There are a lot of perceptions of what writing is, or what creativity is, and how it happens. Part of my own work as a writer, and the workshops that I lead, is about breaking down these perceptions, or broadening then, because it can look like so many different things.

The point is that we’re all exercising something together. There isn’t an outcome, really; it’s about the process. It kind of reminds me, someone said to me “What kind of training are you going to do to get ready for your ride?” I really couldn’t figure out how you train for a 40-day bike ride. Then I realized that the ride is the training. The ride is the training, and the writing process is the writing. That’s what this is, more than anything: watching yourself in the prose, in the process of it, and realizing that this is writing, too. This is what writing can look like. It’s something that happens in solitude, in a sort of isolation, and it can be an open-air, communal thing.

NEA: Do you have anything else to add?

STEIN: I’m looking forward to being at Printers Row. We’ll see if writers actually sit down. One of the funny things is that people who are self-professed writers have the hardest time sitting down at the typewriter, which is surprising. Or maybe not so surprising. Writers, generally, have to have their perfect environment that they write in, and I probably do too.

NEA: Writers may be more inhibited, since usually when people read their writing it’s totally polished, it’s edited, and it’s not free-form.

STEIN: Right. It’s a little fun to watch them squirm, though.

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