Typewriter Diet

How to Write with a bunch of little Hammers

I gave in to temptation this summer. I bought a typewriter, another typewriter. With something like that in times like these, you only need two to slide into the realm of being a "collector." My first typewriter, a 1928 Underwood, isn't functional. It's essentially an ironic paperweight, which is also a tenuous use for it considering the shaky future of paperweights. I keep it for its looks, its worn wooden spacebar, the round keys on bent iron legs, the smell of industry that still lingers at its heart.

The new typewriter, a Brother Activator, is different. All it needed when I took it from its case was a new ribbon and a bit of dusting. It's a younger model, burnt orange with false dark panel veneer. Its curves are sleek, it sits low on the desk. The automatic repeating spacer fires off a thrilling staccato of thuds, like distant gunfire. This is a working machine.

I must admit that I am still squarely on the learning curve when it comes to actually using it. The first thing one comes to appreciate is how incredibly forgiving the electronic keyboard is. I've always secretly prided myself on my relatively solid typing skills. I can almost type at dictation speed without looking at the screen or my hands all that often. On the typewriter, a sentence without errors is a triumph. The first change has been to slow down, the second has been to type harder, the third and most important change I've had to make is to be certain of what I am writing before I start writing it.

This is the essence of the Typewriter Diet. If you have to put serious effort into putting something into writing, or at least legible writing, you start to pay more attention to what you are writing in the first place. I do not mean by this that the typewriter acts as a bottleneck, that it encourages excessive self-criticism. It's rather the opposite. The typewriter's wretched pacing acts as the perfect external foil. Gone is the limitless open frontier of the electronic page, that false freedom so often revealed to be the most daunting of obstacles. If I do not happen to capture in an instant the flurry of images that comes to mind, the deluge of inspiration that overspills its banks, it is not out of some failing as a writer but merely the obvious reality of writing on cold steel. Sometimes you need to slow down to get anywhere.

People of earlier generations have shaken their heads in a mixture of bemusement and dismay when I tell them of my newfound obsession. Too fresh in their minds are the tough old days, when the misstep of one key meant a lengthy set of arcane rites to remedy it. Perhaps they also take for granted the fact that they grew up learning how to actually write. I remember quite clearly the quiet vehemence with which I resisted practicing handwriting in elementary school and the seeming lack of real concern this elicited. Never was I caned or berated for my inability to properly form cursive letters, to write in a straight line, to hold my pen properly. We all could hear the computer coming, no need to push the issue too forcefully. I have infinite sympathy for the countless educators who have endured my resulting scrawl on a lifetime of written exams. Having recently had the experience of marking myself, I was shocked to learn that we cannot grade for legibility. This too, I imagine, is a problem that will soon be resolved outwardly by technology, which is to say that it will be turned into another problem in the guise of a solution.

Right now, as we wait for the variables of security, privacy, cost, and expectations to line up, we weather the storm of hieroglyphics with a stoic patience. The conventional wisdom to ease this predicament seems to be something to the effect that the written exam gauges a student's knowledge of raw content, key concepts, important words. It is to be a feat of unassisted reason, an epic task of swift thought and minimal reflection. It has long been held that students always perform more poorly than expected on exams. I am not citing this as a mere anecdotal generality; I actually read it in a book devoted to quantitative methods and logical positivism. It is science with a capital "S." The theories have it that students are nervous, rushed, overwhelmed by extrinsic motivation, disoriented by the unusual environment, intimidated by the gravity of ritual, smothered by their parents, or still hungover from the night before.

Has anyone stopped to consider the ramifications of having students write more in three hours than they normally write in a year? I once had to sit two exams in one day, both were the kind where you went in guns a-blazing, writing all out for three hours, trying desperately to summarize all of the key theological ideas as embodied in famous individuals in the works of Dante. There was a point where my hand gave out on me. Hour 5. It lay limp on the desk as I tried to massage some life back into it. It was like the scene in a western when the horse finally gives up in the desert, the hero whispering softly in its ear with sand in his beard. I imagine that my writing in those final minutes was as that of the infirm, each letter over-spaced, faint, and jagged. I left feeling like a pack-a-day smoker who'd been forced to run a marathon.

You would think that in this, our age of accommodation, measures would be taken to recognize that the hands of today are not up to the challenge of exam writing. These soft hands, "office hands" I think is the new term, are severely impaired when it comes to handwriting, and it should really be no surprise when students perform poorly. If you put a champion racehorse in a petting zoo for a year, it probably won't go on to win any more races, although I'm sure the horse would feel like the time was well spent.

This is far from being the greatest problem facing education today. I also do not entertain even the slightest notion that we can somehow halt the devolution of human capacities that accompanies the onslaught of technology. Both of these are topics for another day. Right now, I'm talking about typewriters.

At the end of the day, metaphorically I hope, the typewriter forces you to think what you are doing in a way that a computer does not. It is this thoughtfulness that makes it so important and its disappearance so tragic. If I could, I would be blogging with a typewriter, and perhaps once my skills progress I will do just that. In the meantime, I'm learning proper posture, hardening my finger tips like a guitarist. I'm on the prowl for spare ribbons, thinking of getting the old Underwood up and running, and always on the lookout for number three.

Accusations of obstinacy aside, I don't think this is a particularly pretentious exercise, at least not any more so than anything else I do. Sometimes it is truly refreshing to see that a piece of atrocious writing actually looks atrocious, its excessive similes marred with typos like a mouthful of rotyen tte eeth. No words are processed here; they are pounded out on the bare page, imprints of contrast, naked to the eye.