Fiction: Angela Woodward
“We have extensive accounts, typed out neatly: ‘They took me into a dark room and started hitting me on the head and stomach and legs. I stayed in this room for 5 days, naked, with no clothes.’”
Angela Woodward’s novel Ink tells the story of the two women who spend their days doing that neat typing. Sylvia and Marina, both single mothers, work in a suburban office building, transcribing tape recordings of witness statements describing detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Their ordinary preoccupations—problems with the soap in the restroom, the motives of Marina’s new love, Mr. Right, and Sylvia’s worries about paying for her son’s show choir costume—are a mundane backdrop to the violence represented by the transcripts.
Woodward layers essayistic explorations of the history of ink and writing materials into the women’s tale along with the story of the unfinished masterpiece of a French poet, and a writer’s notations about her daily commute and the lake behind her house. Then a new crime is revealed. Ink is an illuminating meditation on what it means to bear witness.
I thought I had come to the end of things to say about ink, until I found a note to myself yesterday that reminded me about its capacity for corrosion. The ink that was made for dipping quill pens was of varying quality. Some was dark but turned lighter, some was brownish but turned blacker. Some of this hand-made ink got clogged with particles or came out so runny it had to be set out in the sun to evaporate. For all its faults, this ink co-existed kindly with the quill.
The makers of steel pens thought they had a huge improvement. No more men sitting on the banks of ponds pulling the stout wing feathers from geese. The 19th century English steel pen, with its metal nib cut with three little slices to direct the ink, lasted longer than a quill and felt sturdier in the hand. It was better suited for men and business. The writer dipped it into the ink pot and heard a satisfying clink. This sound accompanied the flow and interruption of the writer’s thought.
But the inks that had worked well in quill pens ate away at the steel nib. Even with careful cleaning, the steel pens eventually turned into corroded monsters, writing wide, uneven scraggles. The precise incisions that sent the ink from the nib onto the page opened into uneven rifts. The ink flowed down the degraded metal unchecked. Instead of making loops and lines, the ink formed blots. The writer using a corroded pen ultimately blocked out words rather than shaped them. The writer may have risen from her desk a disaster of blackened hands. She left her fingerprints up and down the edges of a page of halting blobs. Uncontrolled lines connected these splats, where here and there an “a” or “m” peeked out. The writer looked down at this mess and decided to throw out the instrument that had promised so much when new. It took a steady hand and diligent wiping and soaking to keep steel pens in shape. No matter what, the ink ultimately had its way, and ripped the pen apart.
The pen makers blamed the ink makers for the destruction of their instruments. The pen makers branched out and began making their own inks, specified for use with their pens. Ink’s ideal qualities are described here: “It must run freely, but not spread; it should not smell, or be liable to go bad; it should dry easily; it should not harm the paper on which it is used.” And of course, it should not harm the writing instrument. In actuality, ink of that era ate away at paper, and was capable of dissolving the nib that laid it down. This is a challenge we’ve totally forgotten about.
It’s so peaceful to write on my laptop, where the words appear as figments of themselves on a portrait of a white page, and the wrong, misplaced words and phrases can be undone with just the push of the backspace key. It’s all so clean. I’ve at times dissolved whole manuscripts by clicking on the file name and pressing delete. If I change my mind about a word, I highlight it and type something else in its place. In this way, I don’t even have to erase. Just eradicate.
The other day I had to ask for a morning off work to take my car to get its brakes fixed. I brought the whole folder of pages of this very novel with me. I sat in the plastic bucket seat at Car-X, reading through and making notes, delete this, move this. What is this? I filled the nice white paper with my stern editorial injunctions, crossing through lines and writing in small script what seemed to be a better sentiment. The model tires mounted on the walls infused the waiting room with a strong rubbery smell, overridden by the tang of a Mr. Coffee pot burning on its heated ring.
A man came in and took a seat 90 degrees from me. He thumbed through the men’s magazines that I usually enjoy reading in the Car-X waiting room. I didn’t know men had these worries about their prostate and being stuck in the “friend zone,” and I like stories about rock climbing. I kept on fluffing through my loose manuscript pages, scritching with my pen while he read the magazines. After a while, I realized the man’s eyes were on me.
He’d never think I’m writing a novel, I thought. Even if I could explain it to him—two women typing unbearable transcripts of detained men at Abu Ghraib, and some things that happen to them, and some other things—his eyes would glaze over. Is it a mystery? A romance? he might ask. Then he would tell me about some friend of his who wrote something once, without any more questions for me.
It would be easier to pass myself off as a crazy person obsessing over a memoir of her schizophrenia or an accusation against a lover who wronged her. Real writers, I’m sure this man getting his car serviced would think, don’t sit in Car-X with pages strewn over the stained side table. They don’t make that uncomfortable noise with the drying point of the Staedtler Triplus Fineliner that I prefer for editing. Crazy people stare at their pages and make marks on them, not letting the pages rest. To fidget over the exact right word probably seemed like a weakness. And I had so many pages with me, over a hundred at that point. They spilled out of their folder and occupied the whole tabletop. They were an embarrassment.
I didn’t try to explain myself. I turned my attention back to my task. I crossed out “some” and wrote “a” or “the.” I took out commas, then put them back again in the same spot. I weighed the placement of paragraphs and drew arrows sending them back or forward. If a note on a quarter sheet of scrap paper slid to the floor, and it said on it in green cursive, “5 different weights of font, from black to gray, book to light,” I didn’t worry what the man in the Car-X would make of it. I felt very good about this interaction, or lack of one. I felt it was a real victory.
Out now from The University Press of Kentucky
Angela Woodward is the author of the novels End of the Fire Cult and Natural Wonders. Natural Wonders won the Fiction Collective Two Doctorow Innovative Fiction prize in 2015. Rain Taxi called it “a wide-ranging meditative book that is by turns delightful, clever, and heartbreaking.” Woodward’s short fiction has won the Pushcart Prize and been anthologized in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web. She has published stories and essays in many journals, including the Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Los Angeles Review of Books, and American Chordata.
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