Writing The Old Fashioned Way

August 14, 2007

In the not too distant past, word processors didn’t exist. In fact, computers weren’t practical machines for writing until I was out of high school (late 80’s). Up until then the only way to reliably generate a document at home was with a trusty old typewriter. It would be easy to get all misty-eyed when thinking about those halcyon days, but truth be told, composing and creating documents on a typewriter was a huge pain in the ass. All that spacing, calculating, and fiddling was maddening. And then there was the magic of erase tape. I’ve used a few typewriters in my day. My mom’s old Smith Corona warhorse served the family well for many years. I have fond memories of that machine. The clacking of the keys. The loud, mechanical sound of the built-in erase function. The smell of newly born ink. And of course, the look of freshly rendered 12pt Courier on a blank page (I still compose in double-spaced Courier – how about you?) I had my favorite machine in Typing 10 – a hulking Olivetti with some nail polish on the carriage. That machine always smelled faintly of perfume (from the girl who was in the class before me, it turned out). I could crank out close to 50 words per minute (with minimal errors) at my peak. Ah, the good old days. These days, I’m a master of the two finger hunt and peck.

It’s no understatement to say that the word processor has changed the writing process. No longer is it necessary to labour at the typewriter, vainly attempting to correct something or trying to cram revision notes in the margins. The concept and strategy of writing in drafts is challenged by the ease at which someone can move text around a screen. This is not to say that nobody writes in drafts any more. I find that I can’t properly get my head around what I’m writing until I compose a rough first draft and print it. I’m just saying that it’s very easy to edit on the fly. Almost too easy I’d say. However, I couldn’t fathom composing a long manuscript like a novel on anything but a word processor. They sure make the editing and revision process easier. Then again, you gotta admire ‘ol Kerouac for cranking out a few hundred pages on a continuous roll for days on end1.

A few months back, I picked up a new keyboard. It’s what the manufacturer calls a buckling spring model. It weighs about ten pounds and has all the feel of those old school, heavy-keyed IBM keyboards – including the almost deafening sound. This is no wimp-ass typing instrument. You could probably drop the thing from a ten-storey building and it’d be OK. I love typing on the fucker, but there’s something missing. The action is right, but the sensation isn’t quite what I’m after. I firmly believe that the physical act of writing – the tangible sensation of it – is a huge part of why people do it. There are a few interesting writing utilities / programs on the web – writer comes to mind, as does Google Docs – but none of them can replicate the sheer joy of banging out a few pages the old fashioned way.

So I bought a typewriter. A manual. A portable – 1957 vintage. No erase tape, no power return. It’s got that anachronistic “ping” when the line runs out. Not too expensive. Less than $100.00 landed cost. The idea of cranking out first drafts on this thing gets me hot. No editing. No cut and paste. Just fucking write and let the words fall where they may. It’s a fetish item to be sure, but the experience – the sensation – is delicious. Like I said, I don’t think I could compose anything of substantive length on it but it’s invaluable for shorter work.

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1 I’m no Kerouac fanboy, but I think the guy did have his brilliant moments, and his dedication to the craft was to be admired.

Vignette #222

8 reader comments (closed)

1

Adam Snider

Where did you get this typewriter from, Mike? Did you ever find a place in the city, or did you end up ordering online after all?

As for the keyboard, I’ve got to say that I love those old school keyboards. My mother hated them, of course, when I still lived at home.

The whole family tying to sleep, and me in the basement pounding out page after page on the noisy old keyboard. The computers in my parents’ house now have the newer, quieter style keyboards.

Aug 14, 2007 • 16:54

2

Gravel

I found it on Ebay. It was dirt cheap, but the shipping was killer. And it needed some cleanup and repairs – easily done by me (the manuals are quite simple, actually). New ribbon, too, which is easily found online.

Aug 15, 2007 • 00:15

3

ann

cool! word processors are 1000% better as far as convenience is concerned, but i miss those typewriter days.

Aug 16, 2007 • 04:06

4

Fergis McGillicuddy

Hey Mike,

What model of manual did you pick up?

A few months ago, typewriters forced their way into my wallet and took everything they could get their greasy keys on.

Anything could trigger a Project MKULTRA-esque impulse to be close to typewriters—at ANY cost.

Fortunately the period was brief and my life has returned to normal, though a small army of typing machines of varied construction and expense now occupy a corner of my back room.

Aug 16, 2007 • 13:11

5

Gravel

Hey Fergis,

It’s a Smith Corona Silent Super. Nice little portable. Came with case and everything. I’m quite enjoying it.

Aug 16, 2007 • 14:06

6

Rich

A typewriter? Why? I don’t see the point. A computer is much easier, don’t you think? If you write a long piece in a typewriter, you’d have to somehow get it into a word processor eventually, wouldn’t you? It seems like it would be a lot of extra work. Then again, I’m young enough that I don’t remember typewriters. I’ve always used a computer.

Aug 17, 2007 • 08:37

7

Gravel

Rich,

Yeah, it would be a pain for longer work. It’s more suited for shorter work like songs or poetry or short fiction. The point of the thing, beyond the romantic, retro aspect, is that it forces the author to keep writing. Move forward. Don’t edit on the fly, just get the words down as they tumble out of the ‘ol noodle. A purity is preserved. Not to say that those precious words will be used unchanged in later drafts, but that they can be useful later on.

I find that endless revising can (and typically does) sap some vital energy from a piece. It’s good to remember, and have as a reference, your first crack at something. Sometimes, it turns out to be the best attempt.

Aug 17, 2007 • 10:11

8

ann

excellent answer, mike. i agree on all points.

also, there’s something physically satisfying, almost visceral, about typing — especially on a manual model.

Aug 18, 2007 • 05:11

Mikes typewriter, August 2007

Mikes typewriter, August 2007

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StreetRag is an urban weblog and podcast about the city of Edmonton, which is located in the province of Alberta, Canada. It is authored by Edmonton-based writer, web advocate, and poet Michael Gravel and is updated frequently with written urban vignettes, amateurish photographs, deuteronomous audio material, barely coherent musings and rambling ecumenical treatises. StreetRag is a love letter to a lonely prairie burg struggling with its big city ambitions and small-town feel.

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