This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


typewriter by Darwin Bell
photo by Darwin Bell (CC BY-NC license) - click to enlarge

Writing is hardly an innocent act. I remember with what force I had to strike the keys of my dad’s old manual typewriter when I was a kid. How the ribbon would rise to the occasion like someone throwing himself between an assailant and his victim, absorbing the blows. And as the ribbon ran dry, how the type would slowly fade, prompting me to pound the keys harder and harder, pummeling the paper, turning the letters into pale, shallow graves.

The first time I used an electric typewriter, it felt like cheating. It was in 4th or 5th Grade. I was typing up a parody of the movie Jaws — “Lips,” which we would later perform in appropriate costume. One of the kids who’d volunteered to help on the play sat and watched my two-finger typing, studying me closely but not saying a word until I was done. “I think I understand how you’re doing that now,” he said. I hadn’t realized until that moment that it was a kind of magic trick.

I took touch typing as an elective in high school, and of course we used nothing but the most modern IBM Selectrics. That was in 1982, I think. But when I started at Penn State two years later, it was nothing but the old manual for me. I figured as long as I had a newish ribbon and a sturdy, erasable bond, that was good enough. And in my own writing, watching a poem take shape letter by letter and word by word… I find myself almost salivating now as I recall the pleasure of that tactile experience. Poems were things that you hammered out by hand, which is perhaps how poets were able to unironically refer to poetry-writing classes as “workshops.” And most lyric poems being fairly short and the look on the page difficult to grasp with too many hand corrections, it was easier to just keep hammering out new drafts. I have a huge file box upstairs filled with nothing but those abandoned prototypes, like the empty larval shells of cicadas. The final drafts sit in a nicer, metal tomb downstairs, beside my writing table. It’s hard to simply throw out a handmade thing.

After we bought the adjacent property here in Plummer’s Hollow in 1992, we had the melancholy task of going through the derelict house where our neighbor Margaret had lived almost until her death the previous year. Among her possessions were three typewriters from her youth in the 1930s or 40s, when she had pursued a secretarial career in New York City. They were huge and black, archaic as ringer washers or Model T Fords. By that time I had switched to a word processor and was happy to have put the typewriter era behind me, so when a friend mentioned he collected typewriters, I passed those machines onto him without a second thought. Now I kind of wish I’d kept one of them as a conversation piece.

Around that same time, I had some people up for a party, and they all had a good laugh at the ancient, hulking, hand-me-down of a PC I was using. It must’ve been at least ten years old! I used WordPerfect 6.0, and only a Courier font because that’s what typing was supposed to look like. A few years later, I finally upgraded and put the old beast out to pasture — literally. I didn’t know then about the heavy metals and other hazardous substances found in circuit boards, cathode ray tubes and the like. So now it sits in a shallow, unmarked grave somewhere out in the goldenrod patch we call a field.

Prompted by Beth’s latest post, “Process,” at the cassandra pages.

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18 Replies to “Typewriting”

  1. When I was a kid, I would sit outside my father’s office and wait for him to allow me in so I could sit at the typewriter and bang on it, like some kids might want to bang on a piano. It was actually like music to me. I still have a tendency to type with these big flourishes, waving my hand about and even bobbing my head like I’m playing a song. :) Used to crack my students up when they’d see me doing it in my classroom.

  2. Thank you for that first paragraph. What a lovely description if the visceral act of writing on a typewriter. My son can hardly believe I got through college and grad school on a typewriter.

    1. Thanks, Donna. Yeah, these kids today just don’t know how easy they have it! I remember when the news came out that Carnegie-Mellon was providing every student with a personal computer, the first university to do so in the late 80s, I think, and me thinking, “What the hell do they need that for?”

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed that first paragraph, which brought the whole typewriter experience back to me in a fresh way. It was fascinating to slowly raise a key and see the ribbon rise just as slowly: (“Nooooooo!” I now realize it was saying in slow-mo voice.)

    1. Yeah. And then there was the weird procedure for making a capital letter, the way the whole thing had to rise up, and of course the insistent little bell at the end of each line, prompting an almost Pavlovian response from us poet-types.

    1. Thanks for reminding me of that post, Dick. I love your description: “I had an Underwood ‘Noiseless’, a medium-sized piece of Victorian architecture with keypads like overcoat buttons and a frame as sturdy as a whorehouse piano. And at full throttle it sounded like a Browning submachine gun opening up.”

  4. Thanks for this one, Dave! I love the image of your computer in the field, too, but even more the one of you typing up the play, performing magic. The old manual typewriters were sometimes almost violent – I remember one with a few letters that always cut right through the paper. Before I went to college my parents bought me a teal-colored manual Olivetti, which I loved; that was one of the objects I struggled over when moving up here but ultimately, it went into the yard sale.

    1. Perhaps old typewrites could be repurposed into something useful, like planters — though that would displace the best feature, that nest of type. I’ll bet some of the steampunk geeks have converted typewriters into functioning computers…

  5. Wow, I love the image of young Dave at the keyboard. It brings back even more memories for me, already stirred a while ago on this mention and photos of our old typewriter. I, too, enjoyed the image of the old computer buried in the field. I wonder if that’s where even current dead technology ends up in various parts of this globe.

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