In an earlier post I wrote about “going back to the beginning,” as Inigo Montoya once did, in the hopes of rediscovering who in the hell I am and also figuring out who I’m supposed to be. Well, I did exactly that this week when I bought myself a late birthday present: a forty-year-old typewriter. Not just any typewriter, mind you– one that’s a spitting image of my dad’s old IBM Selectric, the same model I learned to type on as a kid and that my brother and I affectionately referred to as “Ol’ Blue.” This is some real return to the womb shit right here, folks.
The fucker weighs about forty pounds (it sure as shit ain’t no Macbook Air) but this Marlin Blue beast is a thing of absolute beauty. Looks aren’t everything, though– it’s what’s on the inside that counts, by gawd, and I will slap my hand on the Bible and testify that this is perhaps the single greatest piece of machinery ever made by man– it’s the very pinnacle of mechanical perfection. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, and with good reason: technology has rendered these dinosaurs beyond obsolete. I mean, who in their right mind would actually want to use one of these things? Nobody. But what about those of us who aren’t in their right minds? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you unequivocally that I wanted this big-ass IBM typewriter like a fat kid wants ice cream.
The trend among the hipster literati for the last few years has been the procurement of manual typewriters in the hopes of magically transforming themselves into respectable authors. The motives behind this practice are mostly bullshit– I’d reckon they’re roughly 20% pragmatism, 30% poseur, and 50% faux-nostalgia. Some have gone so far as to purchase behemoth typewriters the size of cash registers simply because that’s what their favorite author used a century ago. It’s so strange to me to think about the lengths that some folks will go to in the hopes of emulating their heroes. I mean, I like to drink Wild Turkey, but I don’t necessarily drink it because Hunter S. Thompson drank it– I drink it because it tastes good, it’s 101 proof, and it gets me really drunk.
Given, many writers used portable typewriters back in the day, but “portable” in 1938 means something a whole helluva lot different than it does in 2015. You can bet your ass that if Ernest Hemingway had access to even a halfway-decent laptop, he would’ve chucked his Underwood Portable into the garbage. Freeing up fifteen pounds in his luggage would have meant he could have packed more shotgun shells for wherever the hell he was headed.
Seriously, though, the hipsters are indeed on to something with the proliferation of old-school typing devices, as I discovered first hand after the purchase of my typewriter, and that is preaching the gospel of “distraction-free writing.” When it comes to long-form writing, it pays to be unplugged. I have the hardest time staying on track when I’m trying to write because I keep dicking around on the internet every five minutes. I don’t think I have Attention Deficit Disorder, but I do seem to display the symptoms every time I try to write something for an extended period of time. It’s akin to wearing an uncomfortable shirt–you just find yourself restless far too often, and you can’t get a damn thing done because of it. Well guess what? There’s no checking your e-mail or playing Words With Friends on your typewriter–it’s just you and your actual words.
But this isn’t the biggest benefit I have reaped from my “new” typewriter. When it comes to writing, I am my own worst enemy. I consider myself a better editor than I am a writer, and if I’m trying to write a long-form piece (especially a narrative) I find myself editing and re-composing the words I’ve just written over and over again to the point where I eventually come to the conclusion that what I’ve written “fucking sucks,” and in a fit of despair I will quit writing altogether. Well, a typewriter obviously doesn’t afford you the same editorial freedoms found on a computer screen– you’re stuck with whatever words you commit to the sheet of paper sitting in front of you. And while this might sound like a detriment, in my case it’s been a godsend as it has allowed me to just write. It’s almost like a weight has been lifted in my writing process– I am suddenly unburdened because I’m unable to re-read or edit until the page is completed. I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last long while, in part because of this improvement in my writing process, but also because I had forgotten what it was like to type on such a machine. Manual typewriters are an absolute bitch to type on because you have to hammer the damn keys to get them to strike, and the keys
can WILL get jammed if you go too fast. Not so with Ol’ Blue– I type upwards of 120 words-per-minute (wpm), and the IBM Selectric can cover 150 wpm with ease. I cannot begin to describe the joy I feel when I first fire it up and hear that distinctive electric hum come alive, or the tactile pleasure I get out of typing the living hell out of this old machine and the feedback it delivers as I watch it keep up with me. It may be mechanical, but it really does feel magical– I reckon those hipsters might be right after all.