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Monday, May 15, 2006
The Typewriter
When I was six years old, I asked for a typewriter for Christmas. You know that feeling you get when you want something so terribly badly that all you can do is think about that thing, think about how your life would be so much better if you had it, and think about how you just might not be able to go on if you don't get it? That's how I felt about the typewriter. I can't even remember why I felt I needed a typewriter when I was six, but I do remember my collection of little notebooks, filled with my scribbles and six-year-old poems, and thinking how much better all of my "work" would look if it was neatly typed.

My parents did not disappoint me. My sister got a Barbie convertible that year, and I got a baby blue Brother children's typewriter and a stack of thin typewriter paper. When I think about pulling that heavy typewriter out of the box, I can still smell the typewriter ink as if it were yesterday. I can still hear my Grandma's voice in the background of the memory, saying, "Now, what is a little kid going to do with a typewriter?" And I remember Mom and Dad deflecting the comment for me so I wouldn't feel silly as my sister played with her Barbies.

I was disenchanted with the typewriter at first because I didn't know how to use it. I didn't know how to type, and even then the blank sheet of typewriter paper staring back at me made me panic, much as a blank computer screen makes me queasy now. But soon I became quite skilled at hunting and pecking (despite the fact that Mom tried to teach me the correct way to type) and I have a small collection of childish, typewritten stories and poems hidden in a box in my basement to show for it. (My very first poem began like this: "Could it be/ That I could see / An elephant / With a chimpanzee?" Heady stuff!)

When I was in seventh grade, I bought my grandfather's IBM Selectric II typewriter for $15.00. It was a beautiful, heavy machine that typed smoothly and corrected easily. Later, in ninth grade, I asked for a word processor for Christmas. Again, Mom and Dad did not disappoint, since by this time I spent nearly every moment writing short stories in spiral-bound notebooks. The word processor was amazing: there was a little screen that flipped up from above the keyboard, and I could see the words flash across it before the machine hammered them out onto paper. I used this word processor through my junior year in high school. At that time, I was the only student who typed her papers for class, and classmates nicknamed me "The Typewriter" because not only did I type a lot, but my handwriting also looked like a typewriter font.

I received my first computer (a Macintosh Classic II, with a Stylewriter printer) when I started my senior year of high school, an early graduation gift from my parents. The computer was exciting (the fonts, especially!) -- I spent a lot of time on it, although I can't remember what I was doing without the Internet -- but it wasn't the same as the old typewriters were. I didn't feel as committed to what I was writing, somehow, when I wrote on the computer. It was too easy to delete, too easy to rearrange sentences. I felt like I was more willing to settle for sub-par writing when I used my computer, because it was just so easy to change later. When I wrote on the typewriter, I thought everything through well in advance, mapped it out on notebook paper, and only started typing after I had a detailed plan.

I am thinking about this today because T's Very Important Task is almost complete. The last part of the VIT is to turn in a lengthy application, and the application will be rejected if it is not typed. On a typewriter. We do not own a typewriter anymore, and so I spent a few minutes this morning calling around to local libraries to see if anyone had one we could use. "Yes, we have one," a librarian told me this morning. "You'll be the first to use it in YEARS!" I will spend part of my Wednesday at a small library, painstakingly typing the application on an old IBM Selectric typewriter. In a strange way, I'm looking forward to it. After years of thinking about words as fleeting symbols on a bright computer screen that makes my eyes hurt, I'm eager to touch some real paper and tap out words, real words I have to think about before my fingers move.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 5/15/2006 11:13:00 AM  
2 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 3:57 PM, Blogger Sarah said…

    "I felt like I was more willing to settle for sub-par writing when I used my computer, because it was just so easy to change later."

    I think that this is a problem for many undergrad writers--they believe that the "revise as you go" process is as effective as prewriting, drafting, and revision stages of writing. I obviously disagree. I don't think that composing on a computer should be the same as composing on a typewriter--we should embrace the possibilities presented by writing that you don't have to feel so "committed to"--but planning and revision are important parts of the process that tend to get neglected.

    P.S. Be sure you have extra copies of the application. I invariably screw up two before I successfully complete one.

  • At 5:51 PM, Blogger ArticulateDad said…

    Sweet reflection. Thanks. I too recall the various incarnations of writing tools that have enriched my life. My father used to be a typesetter in the printing industry. I distinctly remember that massive machine he would sit at, back in the 1980s, an L-shaped monstrosity about 5 or 6 feet on a side, rising perhaps 4 or 5 feet in the air. It was noisy, in a very large, very bright, and overly air-conditioned room (with 3 or 4 others, occupied by other typesetters).

    Fonts existed as long strips of transparent film, black with white characters, that would be inserted into a space the size of a VW Beetle's trunk and attached at either end to a circular drum. Every key he pressed, would set off a series of events inside that trunk: a beam of light would be directed through the proper character, to expose the photographic paper on the other side. The paper would then be extracted (in the dark) from the machine, carried to another room for developing. They reclaimed pounds of silver each week from the photographic chemicals. It all seems so ancient these days, yet I recall it, during my life time, state of the art when I was in junior high and high school.

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