Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Rambling Ode to Manual Typewriters

Last month on Twitter, there was a posting from Dr. Jacobs' always enlightening TextPatterns about manual typewriters. I followed the links on his post to an article from The Guardian about how some writers prefer to use manual typewriters instead of word processors. Cormac McCarthy's manual typewriter was being auctioned off for $15,000. Wow.

One of the points made by authors who use typewriters was that they require you to think more prior to writing. Which leads me to conclude that there is much that is written now that would benefit greatly from this approach, and to assume that it would also probably serve to prevent a lot of what is written from coming into being in the first place. Typing on a manual requires so much more deliberative effort, making it more serious somehow.

And the articles lead me to reminisce about typewriters and then to think about how word processors have changed our world for the (mostly) better.

My mom taught me to type on a manual typewriter. I got an electric one later which I lugged off to college. It came with its own case and weighed about 40 pounds. I earned spending money typing and editing (and sometimes rewriting entirely) other students' papers. Living in an engineering dorm brought a steady income stream. I now have my father-in-law's electric which I use for tax forms - always praying that the ink won't run out because I'm pretty sure they don't make those ribbons anymore. My kids find it fascinating - like dinosaur bones. I love the sound it makes when the keys are depressed and the satisfying whirr of the carriage return. Oh, and the clunk of the shift key. The whole sound experience makes me feel very, very productive.

I got my first computer in 1984. The "pre-writing thinking" referred to in the Guardian article was rendered largely unnecessary given the editing capabilities of word processors. And as the speed and capacity of the processors improved, I became used to thinking less prior to writing as I could copy, paste, delete and retrieve pretty much at will. I do love to type, but it takes so much less effort to produce and send things off on a computer.

And no virtually everything that is typed is sent off via email, Twitter, FaceBook and blogs. We fling out little bits of information that require neither structure nor context (which can't be given in 140 characters and a smiley face anyway), and little, if any, thought - which is okay, as they may or may not ever be read. It is coming at little cost; for the price of monthly internet access and a computer, I can type myself silly.

There is a lot that's good about this, as a record of everything I've ever written or researched is handy by when I want to check on something, although sometimes I look back and realize what I typed was either immature, unkind or just plain wrong. For our kids, while plagiarism is easier using copy and paste than it used to be (we had to work for it by typing each word we were copying from the encyclopedia ourselves), there is now a website called that the teenagers in our school district have to turn everything into, which automatically checks for copying. We've sent letters, pictures and music via computers and little by little we're saving the trees. And we can write things and send them immediately, when we realize we've forgotten a birthday or anniversary.

But, to me, the true glory of using a word processor is most evident when you have to do multiple, slightly different versions of something you're sending out to different audiences. For example, when my child was instructed to write the same introspective paper about an event that changed her life for the fifth year in a row. Leaving aside the sheer absurdity of asking a fourth grader to write such a paper based on ten years of life, each year we found that you can just change the name of the teacher at the top of the paper, tweak it a bit, print it off and turn it in. This year, in her more mature state, she ventured that perhaps she should be writing a new paper this year (not that she had anything to add at that point). I said that, while she could, if the education program was disconnected enough to make teachers ask the same question for five years running, then they deserved the same amount of effort from her that it took to make the assignment in the first place. And typing the whole thing all over again, yep, too much effort.

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