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Missing keys

The English language only has 26 letters at its disposal. One writer discovered she could work with even less – and gained a new perspective on her memoir in the process.

Missing keys
Broken keys help a writer gain perspective on her memoir.
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I open my PC and begin clacking away on my keyboard, each noise a click forward in my memoir. A paragraph of gibberish forms on screen, jagged red lines below nearly every word. I look down. As my fingers press each small black box, wrong words – or barely words – form.

I narrow down my damage, realizing several keys are broken and, while pressable, no longer relay brain->finger->screen messages as commanded. How does a problem so random begin?

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An image seeps across my mind: My 1-year-old and her hand, which barely covers six keys, smacking across my keyboard-covered lap as soon as I reach a good pace. Over and over and over again. Her shrieks of joy and each clap of her mini-palm on my machine harmonizing in a song only I can love.

As a freelancer who composes and fixes copy for a living, a robbery of a few keys is jarring. I begin a line as normal and my blood flows, my brain sparks as cells sew a word and one more and maybe a few more before – BAM. A broken-key vowel sneakily hidden in a word I had foolishly deemed safe. A whole line derailed.


Hands frozen on home row, vibes go from my brain, down my body, and ooze from my finger pads, hoping a new word – a sensible word – will be revealed. Where are Sajak and Vanna for a favor?

Clearly, my ordinary workflow is machine-like, cranking paragraphs of preferred words so a job or phrase will be done – and soon. In a fog, I ignore how a simple finger flick can open new realms, linking words and phrases so easily, mindlessly.

Now, I’m playing a word game by myself. Lacking some of my key players, I am challenged, reaching way back for people, places, adverbs normally asleep somewhere deep in my brain’s folds. Clock hands keep moving; however, my flawed array of keys makes my brain go idle. A simple line finally composed; 420 seconds gone by.

Word’s spellcheck helps fill in some blanks and make phrases read like I originally planned. For non-words Word leaves as is, I go back and copy symbols from old docs where all keys worked as programmed. Before I realize, my special “me morning” sans child is over and I never even finish a scene.


However, I have discovered a few silver linings while playing word cobbler.

I’ve become kind of lazy in my prose. I fall back on familiar words and phrases. And while some words can never be avoided while penning a specific era or person in my book, some have simply become safe screens behind which I mask semi-prolific, semi-comical ideas.

My keyboard chaos also makes me wonder where, inescapably, excess lives in my work. Which phrases are overdone? Do I have spare words in a line? How can I be clear, candid, and all-encompassing in as few words as possible?

Zooming back and looking beyond words, perhaps I have needless people in my book. Someone may have been key in my real life and be wholly disposable in my life being recorded on paper. All of my mannerism massaging and name changing done in vain.


My keyboard caper proves I can improvise and bypass a range of words I normally swear by. So can I also bypass whole scenes in my book? Like Word’s jagged red lines, my mind now looks for nonsensical or needless passages. Where are areas my memoir slows down? Does each scene add a new, specific layer and help propel my chronicle forward? Do readers really need five scenes showing a single behavior or is one good?

My new, slimmed-down keyboard reminds me: If I call forward a side order of energy, or more likely a large coffee, I can sweep clean a few cobwebbed corners of my brain and bring my book and my readers on a new ride. One which, while missing some words, may be all I’ve needed for re-sparking my vocab vision.

Meanwhile, I’m headed for a repair shop.


P.S. One lingering riddle: Which of my keys are broken?


—Meri Quinn is a Boston-based book editor and freelance writer. She is working on her first memoir.

Originally Published