With headlines such as, “Writers’ Club Will Hear Short Story Writer,” five 1962 newspapers announced, in version shorter and longer than the following, one of several talks my mother (b. 1918), delivered on writing:
Harriet Renaud, nationally known short story writer of Berkeley, will be the guest speaker at… the California Writers’ Club, Sacramento Branch… The meeting will be open to the public.
Mrs. Renaud will speak on “Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story.” Her talk will include many of her own experiences in the field of the short story.
Mrs. Renaud has been a feature writer and movie reviewer on the New York Journal-American; researcher and writer in the Letters Department of Time, Inc.; researcher in Business and Labor and a writer-editor on Movies and the Theatre for Newsweek, and a book reviewer for Charm magazine.
As a freelance writer, Mrs. Renaud has appeared in many of the top national magazines. She was described by the Saturday Evening Post as a “new veteran” when her first story for that publication, “The Facts of Love,” appeared in November 1959. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, the American Mercury and Charm.
The talk she gave, “Packaged Instructions,” was in several parts. Part 1 follows.
Packaged Instructions: The Instant Story
Harriet Halliday Renaud
Some weeks ago, I sent along, as a title for this talk, “Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story.” It’s a winning title all right—but unfortunately it came out of my head—and it’s a proven truth that all my brains happen to be in my fingers, and only function when I’m hitched up to a typewriter.
I’ve worked on machines that walk briskly across the desk as you type, ring on every second word, have missing letters and broken shift keys, that neither backspace nor hold or release the paper—and these hindrances I have suffered gladly, in preference to being forced to put pencil to paper.
Actually, I had what can only be viewed as a revelation about this affinity of mine for typewriters, when I was thirteen and in high school in New York, and was awarded the coveted prize of the weekly column to write—800 free words I could shoot the breeze with—and as I walked home on that day of fulfillment, suddenly visions of typewriters danced before my eyes.
This was fairly surprising because, as my parents reminded me every 10 or 15 minutes, I’d never set finger to a keyboard in my life, and didn’t, therefore, know how to type. After several weeks of stereophonic nagging, however, they somehow came to see it my way, and that first shiny black Royal portable was everything I had dreamed. Hunting and pecking even those first columns, it was unmistakably clear to me that my fingers in combination with typewriter keys whipped up a prose brew of such wit, grace, and facility of phrase as had never come out of my head. And that was the beginning of my enslavement to the machine.
Some three years after that, when I got my first job as a feature writer on the New York Journal-American, I was an expert hunt-and-pecker, and ready to engage with any typewriter that happened to come my way. Which was a good thing. Because that city room was full of the oldest Underwoods in America, and every machines was a dog. Their combined clatter, just before the 6 p.m. deadline, was a formidable and even terrifying sound—something like a train being beaten to pieces—but it soothed me. So long as there was a typewriter, I felt as confident as though I had crib notes. I was absolutely certain that so long as I could hit a key, those prose pearls which resided in the typewriter would leap to the page.
And then this slavish dependency on the machine was almost my undoing. One day my city editor, in a moment of monumental capriciousness, sent me to cover the background—or “color”—of the most sensational murder trial in the city. A moderately attractive, almost-blonde, almost young woman then residing in a large mid-town hotel, had one evening put on her nightgown, thought of something she really should do before she went to bed, walked up three flights of stairs to the room where a former lover was also getting ready for bed, reached into the drawer where he kept his gun, and then shot him two or three times, and a few times after that to emphasize her point. She was being defended by a great criminal lawyer, Samuel Liebowitz, and she was pleading, naturally, “self-defense.”
The Criminal Courts Building in New York is very likely the most unrelievedly ugly and forbidding structure in the world, and on that first day that I went down there, it was like some decrepit tomb in which all the corpses had somehow gone hog, screaming wild. The corridors outside the courtrooms were jammed with spectators who hadn’t been able to cram into the courtroom, and with what seemed to me to be at least 150 policemen with nightsticks, trying to keep them from storming the door. There were crying babies, and teenagers with sack lunches, and older people trying to pass bribes, and everywhere you looked there were those threatening nightsticks and photographers’ flashbulbs.
I was just under sixteen, and up until that moment, a very sheltered and carefully trained 16-year-old had I been—much given to all forms of decorum. But if I’d been street fighting all my life, I couldn’t have elbowed, crawled, kicked groins, and gouged with more ease. It took me an hour to get through that mob.
When I finally stepped inside the courtroom, the heat in there hung like a visible drape, and every possible inch of space was filled with people, sitting and standing. I clawed my way to the pressbox, hoping to get Dorothy Killgallen, the Journal’s ace woman reporter who was then (and I suspect still is) some twelve or fifteen years older than I. She had been covering the testimony from the beginning of the trial, and the city desk had told her to look out for me. When she caught sight of me, she immediately took me under her wing.
“No room here in the pressbox,” she said. “Find a seat somewhere. Get a pad from the Western Union boy. Write 50-word takes. Keep handing them to the boys as soon as they’re written. They’ll put them on the wire. Hurry up.”
A sixty-year old “boy” eventually helped me find a seat between two spectators who hadn’t suspected there was any space between them at all—and as I sat there in that terrible, strange heat, with my legs very literally shaking, and a knot like a fist in my stomach, the prosecutor suddenly stood up and waved the defendant’s bloody nightgown back and forth in front of the jury; the heroine (I mean the accused), on cue from her lawyer, began to weep, beat the table with her fists, and clutch at her curls; and the renowned Mr. Liebowitz, wearing only his used, crafty face and a $350 suit, stood up and shouted furious objections.
The whole audience leaned forward in gratified attention, and I, sitting in a puddle composed of equal parts of my own sweat and that of my benchmates, closed my eyes and wished that I’d never been born. I thought with searing envy of all my friends who had gone safely off to college, just as I might have done if I hadn’t nagged my way into a newspaper job. I thought of them taking Freshman English and worrying about things like would they have a coffee date after class. All kinds of regrets and yearnings went through my mind while that bloody nightgown kept waving in the air, and the accused in a print dress wept and keened, and the great lawyer thundered and threatened. But what formed itself into a simple prayer went something like this: “Dear God,” I prayed, “if only I could have a typewriter.”
Well, my prayer was heard somewhere, although evidently not in heaven, because shortly thereafter a boy delivered a note to me from Big Sister. “You’re too damn slow, kid,” the note said. “Get the lead out and start filing.” I got the lead out all right, and used it to start writing, and I got by. But it wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been if I’d been able to conspire with a typewriter.
To be continued…
Harriet Halliday Renaud’s “The Facts of Love,” mentioned above, can be found in Scene4 at