On Writing: When typewriters roamed the Earth

On Jan. 2, the Juneau-Douglas City Museum will open its Ordinary Things/ Extraordinary Tales” exhibit, and one of the ordinary things on display will be a pre-WW2 Smith and Corona Company typewriter used by artist and librarian Dale DeArmond when she worked at the Juneau Memorial Library from 1954 to 1979.

 

It’s a beautiful machine, and although much older than the manual typewriter I learned to type on, it’s the same species. And I remember teaching myself to write on just such a machine, struggling to imitate some of the giants of English prose, like Samuel Johnson and Norman Mailer, and some of the masters of journalism too, like Jimmy Breslin and that mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent.

(Hey, he was Superman; he must have had an incredible prose style.)

I remember learning to write to the typewriter’s rhythms — the sounds of fingers striking the keys, metal typebars whacking the paper, the ring of the margin bell, the slam of the carriage return. I became a better typist so my fingers could keep up with my thoughts. But fingers can move only so fast, and in the end the machine won. It slowed me down, made my thoughts creep along with my fingers.

And strangely enough, the machine made me a better writer. I was so afraid of having to type a page all over again that I spent more time with each sentence and became more deliberate in its construction.

And the writing itself fell into the rhythm of the clacking of the keys. The typewriter to be displayed at the City Museum is called the “Silent” model. Silent? What good would that be? The clacking had become a part of the process. It was the sound of writing.

When electric typewriters came around, they messed with that sound, that rhythm — touchier keys, less lag, maddening electric hum — but there was still that old familiar clacking of metal on paper.

But then, of course, came the computers. At first I wondered if I would be able to compose at all on the thing. No lag, no clack, just fingers gently clicking on the pastoral keyboard. It threw my writing completely out of whack. The whole thing seemed a distraction so alien to the process that I went back to composing with pen and paper.

Eventually I adjusted and capitulated to the new machine. Word-processing made it so much easier to revise. No more attacking the typed pages of a draft with scissors and Scotch tape; no more piles of crumpled pages overflowing the waste basket beside the desk; no more flourishing the White-Out brush like a veritable Michelangelo.

But by making it easier to revise, the computer had the ironic effect of making us worse writers. Instead of anguishing over each sentence before typing it out, we now type a sentence out any old way just to get it down. And then the next sentence, and then the next, always telling ourselves that we’ll go back and revise when we finish the whole thing. And then suddenly the deadline is upon us, so we run a spell-check and call it done.

And as Robert Frost says, way leads on to way, and we never get back to that road not taken — or to that sentence not revised.

But revise we must. Writing on the computer has led to the emergence of new rhythms, new ways of working, new attitudes toward writing that we are just now beginning to fully apprehend. Not all of those attitudes help us write better. Just as spell-check is no substitute for proof-reading, word-processing is no substitute for processing the words in our own heads and revising, revising, revising. There’s no substitute for thinking when we’re writing.

A few years back, in a moment of acute nostalgia, I bought an old IBM Selectric typewriter from my friend Dave Funaro, but there was no going back. The Computer Age had taken me. But still, I love these old typewriters and the memories they awake. They remind me of a rhythm we have lost.

 

• Jim Hale can be contacted through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com

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