Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review of My Typewriter (or Keys on Ice)

Today the two-tone blue Smith-Corona portable sits on a high shelf. I've owned it since I left for college, a young man with stories filling his head.

About thirty years ago something came between us and it changed our relationship.

It was like a comet colliding with Planet Earth. Wham! The world shook. A puff of dust obscured reality. Then the dust settled. I'm talking about the arrival of a new technology. We shook our heads in wonder. Then we began using this enticing thing that had come into our midst and offered so many advantages.

This was in the 1980s. The computer age had arrived. My typewriter, essentially, died right where it stood...

When the Mode Becomes the Muse...
As everyone knows, the computer easily won the allegiance of 99% of writers, including Van Winkle. How could it not? It offers an easy way to correct everything from misspellings to an infelicitous phrasing.

Let me take a second to type out the computer's chief competitive advantage for everyone to see:

A computer = Free do-over

But I think there's a way in which my old hunk-of-steel typewriter remains the forgotten king of the technology heap. It's true. The typewriter is the original all-in-one device.

The typewriter is also the printer.

The practical implication is that a typewriter has always required a high degree of commitment to whatever one is writing. Think a thought and communicate it to your fingertips and it will appear a second later on a piece of paper in black ink.

Think, hit, print.

It's going to require a lot of erasing or some stern swipes of Wite-Out to take the words back.

For this reason, tentativeness and hesitation and endless backspacing, highlighting, deleting, and paragraph moving have no place in the typing-writing process.

Instead, it's like standing in a corner at a party and spotting an attractive person.

Without rehearsing over and over in the mind a pickup line and the proper je ne sais pas quoi inflection, you get your fingers in the right position, walk up to that person, and you smile. And then you lean forward and start "typing" what you have to say and every word had better count...

Hello. You look like someone interesting.
I'd like to get to know you if you'll let me...

Exploding Typewriter
It must be recognized that typewriters are not without their drawbacks. In fact, I know of some writers who have had major problems.

In The Writing Life Annie Dillard tells of the time she was upstairs in her house and she heard a rumbling from below. She found the source of the ruckus downstairs in her study where her typewriter was glowing and smoking. Before her eyes it grew worse:

I saw at once that the typewriter was erupting. The old green Smith-Corona typewriter on the table was exploding with fire and ash. Showers of sparks shot out of its caldera—the dark hollow in in which the keys lie. Smoke and cinders poured out, noises exploded and spattered, black dense smoke rose up and a wild, deep fire lighted the whole thing. It shot sparks.

This all too absurd fantasy ends the next day when Dillard cleans the typewriter and announces, "I have had no trouble since." Then she adds an amusing note of frisson in the final sentence of the chapter:

Of course, now I know it can happen.

Getting Hammered
In 2002 Judy Blunt published a memoir entitled Breaking Free. In it she told of her depressing life as a young wife on a Wyoming ranch, which led to her fleeing said ranch. The book caused some controversy.

The problem was a scene in the first chapter of the book in which Ms. Blunt dramatized how her father-in-law, angry because she was late bringing lunch to the table, came into her room where she had her typewriter. He took the machine outside into the yard and beat on it with a sledgehammer.

Please don't destroy this typewriter from the 1930s.
It's gorgeous and I bought it as a collectible!
When the book appeared, the father-in-law, highly irate and perhaps feeling a bit litigious, said this event never happened.

A red-faced Ms. Blunt had to admit that she had exaggerated the facts to heighten the conflict.

In truth the incident involved the old man pulling the plug on her electric typewriter and shouting at her. No sledgehammers were involved.

I'm glad the author made a public correction in an interview. Because, you see, I was having trouble understanding why anyone out West would try to kill a typewriter with any kind of hammer.

The man was a rancher! He should have run over the typewriter with a tractor or a pickup truck until it resembled shiny roadkill.

Or he should have taken it down to the river and thrown it in into the deepest whirlpool.

Jack Kerouac's typewriter
As I see it, typewriters deserve respect. Even when you're killing them. You're not executing some knave but veritable royalty.
Just think of Jack Kerouac typing On the Road on a 120-foot long "scroll" of paper he continuously fed through his typewriter.

Such a BIG and WORTHY machine should die a notable death.

With a bang, not a clang!

Typing Posture
In the days of yesteryear I drafted all my fiction by hand on either notebook paper or within the pages of ruled notebooks. After that I turned to the two-tone blue Smith-Corona typewriter to produce the final product. I wrote a collection of short stories and a novel with that typewriter, both of which were published, but I didn't connect this success to the typewriter. The computer came along and whisked me away for the remainder of my writing life.

Still, I remember well how those early works required the hard labor of typing multiple drafts until I got the words right. When I add it up, I realize several thousand pages rolled through the typewriter just to produce the sum total of two books. The work was so physical that my back began to hurt.

So I learned to type standing up.

This was about the same time Elton John became famous for kicking over piano benches and acrobatically banging the ivories from an upright position. Crocodile Rock! Bennie and the Jets! The crowd went wild. In my empty apartment the only sound was the keys clacking and my occasional sighing. But my back? It felt a whole lot better.

The Smith-Corona has remained in my life, albeit at the margins. After I began teaching at a university I placed it on a table in my office on campus. When our son was a toddler I took him to the office and, fascinated by the chrome return bar and those tantalizing keys, he urged me to shove a piece of a paper into the slot, roll the platen, and have me help his little fingers poke at the keys and print a few words.

It is magical.

Most of the time when I stop using things, I get rid of them. They get traded in like my cars or they go to a garage sale or Goodwill or end up in the trash can. Not my typewriter.

Both the typewriter and I know. My computers are convenient, lightweight, and quick, but I'll never save a computer and enshrine it on a shelf. The computers are casual, colorful affairs, the typewriter is someone I've loved. Its key pressure and clacking sounds and dinging return bell and its twenty-pound weight are aspects I know intimately.

Just look at you, Smith-Corona. You traveled from Anchorage, Alaska to go to college with me in New Haven, Connecticut. You got me through a nearly 100-page senior economics paper. Whew! In your greatest feat, you churned out pages that were mailed to New York City and eventually they came back to me in published form. And those are just the highlights. That's reason enough to rate you four stars **** - V.W.

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