A Sweet Sad Story about a Typewriter

Let’s begin with the device, a standard Underwood office manual typewriter, circa 1940 something. It belonged to my uncle, a Catholic priest and my first mentor, a man I loved deeply. He died suddenly in 1956 when I was fourteen, the single most traumatic episode of my life.

Flash ahead to the mid 1970s when I was a newspaper reporter in Keene, New Hampshire, and an aspiring and unpublished novelist. I was in the market for a new typewriter, having beat to death my Smith Corona portable from my college years. My mother dug out my uncle’s old Underwood from the attic. It was covered with crud. After a clean-up it was like new. I loved the feel of that machine. Manual typewriters are as much about touch as they are about text.

Typing on a manual typewriter is not the same as typing on a computer keyboard. When you type on your computer you kinda wiggle your fingers. But a manual typewriter requires you to raise your arms and strike the keys with some force. The machine responds with complex click sounds that could be scored on sheet music. Get into a rhythm and you feel like a concert pianist. You watch your words pop up letter by letter onto the paper. There’s no word wrap; you have to return the carriage to the next line with a deft swing of the right hand.

On the down side you must go forward. There’s no cursor to roam back and forth in the text; no arrow keys, no delete key. You make a mistake and it’s baked in. A typewriter is a word processor that saves directly to the paper. That is its glory, and that is its doom.

At the newspaper we would type short paragraphs on our IBM Selectrics, because that would make it easier to “cut” and “paste” them. The phrase “cut and paste” is a metaphor on the computer keyboard that comes from the world of journalism in the typewriter age where paragraphs were actually cut, rearranged, and pasted onto a new page. Every reporter and editor had a pair of scissors and a glue pot on his or her desk.

I had spent about five years teaching myself to write fiction, I felt I was ready to start a novel--that is, start a good novel (I'd already failed with two) but I was afraid of more failure, not to mention the hard work that lay ahead. My new typewriter and the memory of my uncle inspired me to get to work. Around this time I also figured out that I couldn't write fiction the way I wrote news stories--fast and final. I needed a method to slow me down.

I made three rules for myself. Rule 1: Each page had to be perfect. That is, the narrative had to read in a satisfactory way. Rule 2: each page had to contain some element I had not seen before in a book, an original metaphor, an action by a character, an insight–fiction I could call my own. Rule 3: No cutting and pasting. When I made a mistake, even if it was just a typo, I would start over and retype a new page.

I stuck by my method for the entire book. I would type a page, take the page out of the typewriter, and edit it with a number 2 pencil. I would put the pencil-edited page beside the typewriter and retype it on a new page. In this process, I discovered a truth about creative writing, which is that sometimes the hands are smarter than the brain, because I found that as I retyped I often rethought the scene and made changes I had not anticipated. I might type over the page three, four, five, or as many a dozen times. In the end what started as one page might become two or three or more pages.

You don’t build a novel like a sculpture carving a stone block, you build a novel like God creating a coral reef. Start with a word, make a phrase, encapsulate the phrase in a sentence, write more sentences that fit nicely into a paragraph, and so forth until you have 90,000 or so words.
Constant retyping and rethinking and refeeling put me in touch with my story in way I had not anticipated. I grew intimate with the characters and the fictional world. It took me forever to write a chapter, but by the time it was finished the chapter was pretty good.

I typed two hours a day, six days a week, for four years–and DONE. The book was published by a major publishing house, was very well reviewed, received a citation from the Hemingway foundation, and sold fairly well. Now more than thirty years later THE DOGS OF MARCH is still in print. It’s the first book in what would a seven-book Darby Chronicles revolving around the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire.

That’s the sweet part of the story. The sad part is I was never able to write a book on a typewriter again, nor was I ever able to create a method for writing that worked consistently.
My newspaper employer re-tooled the office to accommodate computer terminals. Working in my day job as a reporter and typing on a keyboard with a display undermined the method I had devised to write fiction on the typewriter. I couldn’t write for six months. I became bitter and vengeful. I hated the computer, I hated my job, and above all I hated technology.

I began to take stock when I started to hate my fellow human beings. I was at a crossroads. I could quit my job, dump my family, and retreat into a cabin in the woods with my manual typewriter, notebooks, and bile; or I could join the human race on its course of technology that was leading humanity into the unknown.

I chose technology. I bought a Radio Shack Model 1 computer, and my work has lived or died on the computer ever since. I’ve worked on DOS, Atari, Microsoft Windows, the Mac, the iPad, and most recently on a Google Chromebook Pixel. I have tried many different word processing programs and methods of writing. None has stuck. Seems like every book wants to be written in a different more advanced technology.

I still have the Underwood. I use it whenever I have a particularly busy day. I put a paper in it and whenever I do something I type it in as a reminder. In other words the only remaining use of the Done machine is in creating a Done file.

I like technology. Keeping up keeps me stimulated. At the same time I can’t get over the feeling that I have lost something that cannot be replaced.