Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: Thinking about typewriters

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Thinking about typewriters

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This blog post comes with a sound track:  A few months ago Dr. D. and I went to see “Red Hot Patriot,” a play about Molly Ivins. It was presented at the Lyric Stage, with fine acting, our brand of politics, and lines that left us weeping with laughter. As a final pleasure, as we left the theater I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years. But, in addition to all that, I found myself afterwards consumed by thoughts of one of the play’s props, a typewriter--manual, portable, powder blue, just like my old beloved Smith Corona. 

I know that belongs to a different age.  I am more than happy to do my work now on my nimble little MacBook. I like correcting mistakes with a keystroke instead of with whiteout or that little round eraser with the attached brush. I like printing out as many copies as I want instead of layering carbon and onionskin. I remember marveling at my first sight of line wrap--that miracle of coming to the end of a line and having the type move down to the next line without my involvement.  I would never want to give those up. And yet....

There was something satisfying about the little bell that announced the end of the line, the zip of the carriage return--a tiny accomplishment.  All those non-mysterious parts had names I knew--the platen, the ribbon guide, the slim type hammers each with its single mission. Well, two missions--upper and lower case. The typewriter was straightforward, never down. If there was a problem, I could fix it--change the ribbon, unjam the keys. The only thing that needed restarting was me. Even the electric wasn’t mysterious though if you weren’t quick you could end up with a long line of a letter you only wanted one offffffffffffff. 

Before the portable Smith Corona there was an Underwood in my  life, square and important looking. It was portable only in the sense that it was actually possible to lift it, though not without effort and sometimes inky marks on your arms. It was my gateway device, a clunky thing, but magical, turning my words into something that looked like what books were made of. Even to-do lists looked more to-doable typed. As for fonts, I debated for days over whether my new portable should have pica or elite. 

I sometimes think difference between using a typewriter and a computer is like the difference between stick shift and automatic transmission on a car. The quality of attention and engagement is different. I used to sit and figure out what words deserved the effort of being put on the page. I made notes, tried them out in writing first before I made the commitment of type. Now I watch my thoughts spilling onto the screen almost before they register.  Change my mind--zip it’s gone. 

I’m not going back, of course. Just reminiscing. I’m hearing the sound in my head.

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