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The Enduring Appeal of Creating on a Typewriter

There it sits: Draft #2 of my novel Where Dogs Live Forever, created on a 1969 Remington Mark II portable manual typewriter. The outline/first draft followed closely the advice and love given by author Anne Bernays, in “The Enduring Appeal of Putting Pen to Paper.” In her article, she praises the virtues of writing longhand. I concur.

My longhand tools of choice are a Venger fountain pen loaded with blue ink and 8½” x 11” yellow legal pad: blue ink because it is more encouraging and inviting than the false binary of black ink; 8½” x 11” because it fits into folders easily. I’ve spent countless and happy hours at the Stowe Free Library scribbling away, the noise of my pen on the paper drawing curious glances. But it is the keys of the typewriter that create real magic for me.

It began with an old Royal typewriter that my mother had. She stole onion skin typing paper from her office and brought it home for me, and I spent the summer of 1975 clacking away on it, mostly rewriting baseball stories I read in the Boston Globe. In high school I took a typing class: a room full of desks with solid, manual typewriters stacked on them, the diminutive but authoritative Miss Wright patrolling the aisles as we typed over and over, “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” (Note: It is “jumps” not “jumped” because “jumps” includes the “s” as a keystroke, making it a complete tour of the keys.)

I was sent to college with a Brother electric portable, which hummed and bucked as my fingers flew around the keys. The speed allowed me to produce pages and pages of creative and academic content for the English, history, and journalism classes that filled my schedule. The Brother also freed me from the confines of the typing lab, a dour room filled with miserable students hunting-and-pecking late into the night before papers were due. It also earned me beer money: for a buck a page I would type your research paper.

And then, computers. The novelty of early keyboards wore away quickly. Cheap, plastic, grotesquely bulbous, extruding up to my fingers, they lacked the feedback and reality of a typewriter keystroke. But they made typing easier, more accessible. And hundreds of files could be created and stored on the computer. Who cared if what you were typing was crap? It didn’t take up any room. And it was not real.

After almost 30 years of carpal tunnel and a sea of writing, fraught with laptops with their long, flat faces, I saw a movie: a documentary called California Typewriter. It was a window into the world of the typewriter renaissance, something that was apparently sweeping the world. There were organizations and collectors and Tom Hanks, a fanatic who joked that he had invented an app that allowed your typewriter to enter data into your computer. My typing was reborn, and soon I owned the Remington Mark II, a workman-like machine with simple, elegant lines, and an ability to do something important for the creative process: slow it down.

The speed of creation enabled by the computer cheapened the writing. But the typewriter demanded a rhythm, like a dance. It required reflection, because once the key was snapped and the paper inked, it was permanent. There was no deleting. There was only making, and facing the true consequence of the decision.

My feeble fingers and limp wrists soon grew firm and strong. Popeye forearms followed. But the real miracle was the work. Stacks of typed paper grew on my desk. I could see what I was creating as I created it. I could hold it in my hands. I could make marks on typos and write in the margins. Nothing was suggested except that which came from my creativity. There was no auto-save; there was no need.

And so my second drafts emerged from the platen of my machine, imprinted by the keys that I had pressed with my fingers. I was making things again, real things with a physical presence. Yes, the third drafts will find their way into the computer’s hard drive; but before that, they will be immortalized on 20-pound bond paper, stacked on my desk, evidence that I existed.

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