I will not become a person who has lost the ability to create the art of the past. — Harlan Ellison, Guttenberg in a Flying Saucer
Quite recently I read a story in which Issac Asimov, in 1979, decided to start using a computer for writing. In it he tells of the time he had an article due, one for which he had already written ten drafts. All ten of them on his typewriter. The article, which spanned 100 double-spaced pages (so about 25,000 words in length), was due in a couple of days. Already tired of the article, and knowing that if he took on the task of writing yet another draft he would miss his deadline, he decided to call a professional typewriting service to send someone over and write the final draft for him. As he describes it, what they sent over a girl who, for all her well meaning, typed at a pace to miss the deadline by a long-shot. In fact, so frustrated was he that he felt she would likely soon be one of two dead bodies: her, since he would kill her, and his, since he would commit suicide afterward. By the end of the day, he was out $49 and she had typed 11 pages (approximately 6 1/2 words per minute.) Knowing full well what this meant, he sat himself down and started writing. Twenty four and a half hours later, the article was written. Soon he decided to buy himself a computer, to see whether he could avoid this kind of hassle again. After some searching and work, he found the computer and fell in love. (He may have still used a typewriter afterward, but I’m not sure.)
Understandably, I can imagine you’d be surprised that I should use that story as a backdrop to announce that I’ve decided to get a typewriter for working. A manual typewriter, at that. Though I love computers, I’m in a place now where I believe using one of these ubiquitous symbols of the industrial era, these flagship products from the Century of War and Optimism, would be highly beneficial for my development as a writer.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “Why would you want to get a typewriter?!” I’ve had people tell me there are programs for the computer that will make the “clack clack” sound effect, and won’t let me delete with backspace, and will do everything to act like a typewriter. I’ve also had people warn me that my wrists and fingers will hurt and I’ll soon be running back to computers anyway. And of course, I’ve had people look at me as if I’d just decided to get a tattoo on my forehead that read “Luddite,” to which they, in their most kind tone dismissively respond, “that’s all you.” Yep. All me.
The method by which this acquisition shall be made, however, is not yet certain. See, I’ve considered buying a typewriter from one of the local antiques stores, but they just don’t seem to have one. (I’ve even put my name on various “want” lists, but have yet to receive a call.) That failing, I decided to check out refurb shops. The closest I’ve found up to now is Dick’s Typewriter and Business Machines in St. Pete [Edit: Which looks to have closed down], though I’ve had many a wonderful conversation with Jake over at Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, Oregon. I’ve also considered buying from Mr. Typewriter, but everything there will run me at least $225, at least for what I want. Yet, I’ve also been eying a lot of the offerings over at eBay. I’ve even joined a freecycle network to see if I can snag one for free. (The crux of these last two, of course, is that they would need to be taken to one of the two local repair shops. And by “local” I mean “within an hour’s driving distance.” Between the drive and the cost of repair and the driving distance/time I might as well just get them from a refurb shop.) In short, I’ve tried just about every recommended method mentioned in an excellent set of articles on buying typewriters by Strikethru on how to find a manual typewriter. The way it seems now, it looks like I’ll be getting one from eBay, then getting it fixed here, but only because shipping from Oregon is so darn expensive ($50!).
Contrary to what you may believe, manual typewriters aren’t particularly easy to find, at least not around these parts. In eBay I’ve found a couple of Florida sellers, but by far most have been from the northern states, and then mostly in the northeast. Talking with Nils Geylen about this, it seems that this region is in the minority, and that most people have at least quasi-ready access to cheap manual typewriters. I guess people get rid of all their heavy stuff before the head down to God’s waiting room.
Oh, before I forget, I thought you might want to know what I’m looking for, in case you happen to have and are willing to part with one of these: Olympia SM-4, Smith-Corona Silent Portable (either the 1940’s or 1950’s style), or Royal Quiet DeLuxe. Mind you, I certainly wouldn’t mind getting a nice Remington Model 5 with glass keys, or the ultra beautiful Underwood Finger Flite (although these are more a case of form over function).
Mostly, I’m choosing these because I’m looking for something I can both work on and admire due to its aesthetic qualities. I mean, sure, I can work with a blue Smith-Corona Super G, but that and other beasts like it are nothing short of ugly and a half. They remind me of the horrid monster I learned to type on during middle school, a beast I would not dare bring into my home.
Putting it another way, both form and function are important.
Understandably, you could argue that I get both form and function from my MacBook. You would be right. Still, there’s something about writing in a typewriter that will never be duplicated a computer, a certain quality which speaks to the writer in a way the computer never can. Where in one you have a multi-tasking, multi-lingual mechanism able to do a hundred things better than anything before it, in the other you have a machine built for one purpose: to write. Maybe that’s what makes the difference. There are other qualities, but these are better described by others. The fact that typing on a typewriter doesn’t feel like you’re wigging your fingers over a bunch of Chiclettes probably has something to do with it, too. (Don’t get me wrong, I love my Apple keyboard, but It’s not always satisfying.)
That reasoning, of course, can be easily countered. The following, however, can’t. See, I’m amazed by the typewriter’s insta-print technology, where as soon as you hit a key it is printed on the page, with the machine repositioning the paper precisely at the spot necessary to print another character with the minimum amount of space wasted and placed for maximum readability. Also, the security features in typewriters render them immune from hackers, at least those not in my house. Sure, you can’t send email with them, but you can use them to initiate the sending of a message through the Sentient Neurological Automated Information Line (S.N.A.I.L.) Mail, a vast, dedicated network of systems which are virtually immune to power outages. And, of course, my inner-Luddite was demanding appeasement.
Enough explanations? Good.
Rather than go on, I think I’ll stop here. (Don’t you just hate that kind of ending?) The point here is that I’m getting a typewriter because I feel the need to. I’ve wanted one for months, and seeing my friend Jack with an old Smith-Corona just shot me out of a cannon over the edge. Yet when I’ll get one, I don’t know, but stay tuned for pictures of the thing (or things) when it (or they) comes (or come) in. And by the way, as uncertain as that sentence was, it perfectly describes my feelings about buying a typewriter, especially on eBay.
So if Asimov thought computers were so wonderful, and if I think computers are so wonderful, why do I choose to go back to the bleeding edge of tech over half a century ago? Because I can. And that makes all the difference.