The Xerox

Category: Crafting Life Stories

Crafting Life Stories is a memoir-writing workshop designed to help people discover and tell the stories only they can tell – and to do so in a supportive environment that encourages even beginning writers. With a background in journalism and fiction, instructor Joan Motyka offers journalistic tools and literary techniques to help people explore the significance of people, places, and events in their lives. Using readings, prompts and writing assignments, she helps students draw stories from memory, organize them into a narrative and polish them through revision.

Joan Motyka is a writing coach and former longtime New York Times editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Westchester Review and other publications. She has been leading memoir writing workshops in Westchester and New York City since 2007.

These are some of the stories written by students in her classes at Greenwich Library.


It was my first office. Really not an office, but a desk hidden by the periodicals section of the university library. It was a quiet place where I could study without distraction. And, technically I was working.

The fall of my senior year of college, I arrived with less than $50 of spending money. My parents paid tuition, rent and a monthly stipend for food. But, anything else, like clothes, beer and bus fare was on my dime. I found a part-time job on campus for 10 hours a week in the library.

In 1972, a student’s research was based on the academic books and journals in the library. There were study carrels throughout the three floors of the library filled with students; books and magazines were stacked high in corners of these wooden desks. Most people I knew waited until two weeks before papers were due to start their research. So, I knew that my job would be relatively quiet until mid-October.

I had a brief training session with a university employee, showing me the periodicals, shelved and carefully categorized by academic subject. Access to these periodicals was controlled. No one, not even a professor could take them out of the library. If you wanted to use a journal article for your paper, you got a copy. And, that was my major responsibility; making copies on the Xerox.

The Xerox was tremendous, loud and hot, considered very high tech. This copier was one of only two available to students on campus: the other one was in the student union and had a coin slot attached to the side that was perpetually jammed. So, my Xerox was the place to visit.

Few people in the library knew how the Xerox worked. If it broke down, we could be waiting weeks for a repairman. The person who trained me emphasized the imprtance of smooth operation.

I worked a couple of hours each evening. I would arrive after dinner, head up to the third floor, to my quiet desk, with my economics textbook. Early on, there would be one or two customers a night, who would check out a few journals and then come back to have several pages copied. When the library closed at 9, I would meet my friend Robert downstairs. We would walk down the street to our favorite bar. Our budget each night was $2.00, $1.00 for the pitcher of beer and the rest for a meatball sub to split.

As September moved into October, more customers arrived. One night, as students lined up at the counter, the Xerox huffed and shuddered a little and stopped spitting out copies. I looked at the message flashing on a tiny screen of the Xerox’s front. PAPER JAM. There was a little book of instructions attached to a corner of the machine and I lifted the pages to find the schematic. I opened the main door, swung out the huge drum and carefully picked out a piece of crumbled paper. I reinserted the drum, waiting for the machine to come to life and finished the job. Robert and I celebrated my success over beers and subs that night.

The next night, the message from the machine was LOW ON TONER. Again, I calmly read the book, found the toner supply and was back in business. After that, it seemed that every day or so, something new would go wrong with the Xerox. I memorized the numbering system inside the Xerox, which levers to open, close or move to extract an errant piece of paper. At one point, I desassembled the Xerox, laying the parts on the linoleum floor of the periodical room until I found the problem. I never let the Xerox stop me, surprising myself each time. Maybe I persisited because I like getting paid for this quiet and generally easy job. Maybe my engineer dad’s influence finally hit home.

Each night, I would regale Robert with tales of the Xerox and my challenges met. Robert was one of my best friends that last year of college. I probably spent more time talking to him than I did anyone else. My roommates all had serious boyfriends as did most of my other guy friends. Robert was a handsome, laconic guy, someone all the girls loved but few really knew him. He was the eldest of a big family of boys, all rough and tumble jocks. He wasn’t ever judgmental or excitable. I could tell Robert my deepest darkest fears and in a few minutes, he would have me laughing at my unfounded anxiety.

The two of us faced uncertain futures after graduation. That fall, Robert didn’t know whether he would have to go to Vietnam after graduation. Neither of us had jobs or prospects. Unlike many of our firends, neither of us had a special someone. We were rudderless but unconcerned. Our innocence hid what lay ahead. Maybe my conquest of the Xerox gave me a confidence about the future I didn’t earn. There was so much worrying I should have done. But those nights, after beating the Xerox and splitting a beer with a close friend, I walked back to my apartment in peace

-Susan Hannah