BY SIMON GROTH
I fed the paper through the roller, flicked the bar down and sat, staring at it. It flashed its metallic grin back at me. Starting has always been the hardest part. A blank screen and the rhythmic blink of the cursor has long been a kind of nemesis of mine: …come…on…come…on. But this was different. The page was just as blank as the screen, but there was no cursor. No prompt.
I sat before a 1969 Underwood 310 manual typewriter. Made in Spain by Olivetti, these portable devices were once ubiquitous: the notebook computers of their age. This one was a donation to the Queensland Writers Centre, courtesy of a member who wanted to be rid of it. It was the first one I had seen in a while. My mother was a professional typist so we had a similar model at home when I was a kid; Mum even dug it out of a shed and brought over for me to try, dried out ribbon and all. So, though I suddenly had access to two machines, only the Underwood was up to the task (although, contrary to what you might think, typewriter ribbon is not all that difficult to find).
A moment passed between the machine and me and I was given to wonder why I had volunteered for this in the first place. Why would anyone willingly eschew their still new MacBook Air and commence writing on this antiquated piece of kit in 2013?
The answer came in the almost universal responses to my announcement of this experiment. Whenever I mentioned I was working on a typewriter, I was met with a flurry of positive responses. And everyone had a story: memories of handwritten school or university assignments passed over to hapless mums and their machines, long hours spent pounding out text, and a lot of mentions of whiteout.
Like many lost technologies, a certain romance now surrounds the typewriter. Even in a digitally saturated age, when we picture a writer, a classic writer, we picture someone hunched over a hunk of metal and enamel, squirreled away from the world, sitting beside a pile of balled up pages in a wastepaper basket, probably chain smoking.
As evidence, take a look at the workspace of one of my literary heroes, Kurt Vonnegut:
The new studio smelled of cigarette smoke and the ashtrays were stuffed with butts…Tiger, studying his uncle’s nicotine-stained Smith-Corona typewriter, noticed the space bar had an indentation in the middle, grooved by Kurt’s thumb striking it thousands of times over the years.
From Charles J Shields’ excellent And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.
It’s a compelling scene, even without reference to the statues and copies of Playboy nearby. And it’s hard to imagine anything like that kind of aura descending on a modern word processor and its essentially disposable chiclet keyboard. Indeed, a fledgling movement of typewriter aficionados scurry around the edges of hipster culture. You can see it everywhere. Some beardy kid in Brooklyn wants to use a typewriter as a kind of talisman against writers block, another to make her love letters more … lovely … I guess. Others wrap up their type-love in pop psychology: ‘I felt the need to be grounded.’ Now that typewriter use happens almost entirely by choice, the clichéd classic writer haunts almost every contemporary reference: ‘[It makes] you feel like a real writer.’
Ugh. Spare me.
But by sitting at my desk in front of a blank page was I just feeding into this romance? Do I have an inner hipster dying to make me more magically ‘grounded’ by restricting my ability to cut and paste text?
After careful consideration, I had selected the first piece I would write on the Underwood: a self-contained column with a short word count and an understanding editor. But I began with a few tests, getting the feel of the machine without thinking too much about what it was I was putting on the page. I was reminded of my first encounter with computer keyboards where I typed random gobbledegook onto the ominous green-on-black monitor and hit enter to see what would happen.
Gobbledegook evolved into junky practice sentences and I marvelled at how familiar this process was. Sure you had to push the keys down harder, but there was nothing alien about working on this machine. My fingers navigated the keyboard with practised ease and the hammers hit the page with authority … mostly. My ‘E’s for some reason were always a little faint. The ‘A’ was also problematic. It sometimes connected with the page and sometimes straight up refused to work.
Then I hit the end of the first line. The carriage stopped dead but my fingers kept moving until I was faced with a clump of hammers forming a fist over the stage. Wait a minute. There was supposed to be a bell. Where was the ding? I untangled the hammers and tried again. Nope. Nothing.
Okay. Frustrating, but okay. I typed on, keeping a close eye on where I was up to on each line of the page until it became almost second nature and I was able to relax properly into the process.
The first pleasure of using a typewriter is almost certainly the sound. Oh, that sound. It’s loud, much louder than I had expected and problematic for someone accustomed to writing late at night in a house full of sleeping family members. Compared to the anaemic clack of a computer keyboard, this was brawny, visceral. When you press a key, something moves and it strikes something else. I set the typewriter up on my deck for a while, enjoying the lack of glare and inadvertently broadcasting my work to the neighbourhood. And it was work. I couldn’t flap about on the web or check email or click my way down Wikipedia or Twitter rabbit holes. Hell, I couldn’t even doodle. On this machine, you write.
And while I wouldn’t say I felt more ‘grounded’ (given I don’t even know what it really means in that context), the romance began to creep under my skin. Despite myself, I did feel like more of a writer. I was at the forge, summoning words and turning them into marks on paper that left an impression, quite literally. When I turned the page over, I could run my fingers over text embossed on the page in reverse. There are fake typing sounds you can get for your computer, but they’re not the same, I suspect because it’s not the sound you’re actually connecting with, but the physicality of the act. The only software involved was in my head.
So there I was, hunched over a hunk of metal and enamel (well, plastic), muttering to myself and working. People who didn’t know me would point and say, ‘hey, that guy must be a writer.’ And so I was.
I did, however, draw the line at smoking.
I’m a cut-and-paste writer. This sentence has been cut-and-pasted at least half a dozen times in the creation of this essay (actually, I lost count). My approach to writing is to throw sentences down, and use a little C & P magic to fashion them into something with flow and form.
Pages created on a typewriter, in contrast, are filled with permanently disjointed thoughts.
Without the ability to shift the words around, I had little choice but to forge on, embracing the disjointedness. Eventually an idea that was suitable for the beginning of the piece took shape. At that point I ripped the paper out—if you’ve never done this, it’s satisfying and I highly recommend it—and marked it up in pencil to identify the section using arrows, asterisks, scribbles, whatever to allude to its ultimate form and destination.
Then I fed a new page in and started typing it out again.
At this point, it’s probably necessary to note that I wasn’t using whiteout. That wasn’t a stylistic choice, at least not initially. I didn’t use whiteout because frankly I’d forgotten all about it until about the third draft, by which time I had already refined my workflow to an iterative process: type, mark up, type again.
Not every typewriter user works this way. Though she worked primarily in longhand during the 1980s, Dale Spender placed single paragraphs on individual pages. It’s a technique that would translate easily to typescript, allowing for the easy movement of text, but it creates a gargantuan overall document in the process. Woody Allen, who to this day writes on the same Olympia SM-3 he has since the early 1950s, literally ‘cuts’ and ‘pastes’ his typewritten scripts with scissors and staplers.
Allen’s approach makes sense as an alternative to extreme redrafting, though it would seem likely that his technique requires the occasional complete rewrite. Either way, we’re a long way from rapid fire Command-C and Command-V.
When we use a word processor, we rarely actually redraft in the most literal sense—we don’t start again at a blank page and retype what was already there on the screen. Redrafting a text on screen primarily means re-reading. Then comes tweaking, dropping in new passages, and (of course) cutting and pasting. Then repeat. Each new draft on screen is an adaptation from the previous draft. It’s an evolutionary process.
On the typewriter each of my drafts began the same way: as a single blank sheet of paper which I proceeded to fill with the same text, sometimes subtly reworking and refining the sentences, more often typing them verbatim. After only four drafts, I could recite the opening paragraph word for word. This is writing as a deliberate act. Every word ended up carefully considered, perhaps just as carefully as its computer-generated counterpart, but the experience felt otherwise.
I won’t deny the process was tedious, but it forced me to slow down. After a while I even began to enjoy the repetition. Well, sort of.
As I closed in on the final text, the reality of contemporary publishing became more and more apparent. A beautifully typed manuscript was a lovely thing to create, but I had an editor at the other end of an email address waiting for his 400-odd words. Digital words. The world has moved on. You can live and write in your bespoke grounded hermetically sealed hipster echo chamber, but if you want to reach anyone else, sooner or later you have to engage with the digital world.
There was no time to send the raw text via post (how quaint) and even if I did, what would the editor do with it? Similarly, abandoning the typewriter and turning to a computer for the finished product felt like cheating.
I needed OCR.
For the uninitiated, OCR stands for optical character recognition. It’s the technology that allows you to photographically scan pages and have the computer interpret the text into an editable document. The first OCR I came across was an awful lump of software from about 1994 that apparently thought humans communicated primarily in Wingdings hieroglyphs. I’d had little do with it since.
I downloaded a few free OCR applications for the Mac and set to work. Let this be a warning to you: you get what you pay for. While the contemporary free OCR application might have moved on from Wingdings, it has a long way to go before being fit for actual human consumption. It certainly made a fist of my accompanying blog post, also written on the Underwood.
Ev:en@th:iia1`h£log post has been dmafc-acl om, the Underwood 3I0, as though I’1n trying ‘b€o prove some arcane poinnt. -Wa.ii’lf’, :Es iifléfbf what I’-rn &oiix-rg? As- promiised :En-=‘|:1f1:Is mon“th’s WQ, -lirere are the draits for -my ‘B;ypeje:t’i't’lien, ‘ column. The text has been d:‘§.gi‘bisec1» using a sceannei* with _op+:l:1_ci.1 charaet-er zfecogni’b”ion_ (cr OCR). Because retgypping it’ for screens wo&1d£ Eeel like cheating
Somewhat deflated, I took my freshly mangled digitised wreck of a column and manually tended to it on screen, correcting the egregious errors, but leaving in the charming accuracies (the Underwood has no numeral 1 so the final text maintains the use of the uppercase I in its place). Then it was off through the ether.
And—for the briefest of moments—the simple act of sending an email regained its old wonder.
At some point, it occurred to me that I was writing on a machine older than me by a solid few years. I wondered at times who else might have used it, what words have passed through its ribbons, what it might have meant to its various writers over the past 44 years. In an age where a six-year-old computer is a relic and people feel the need to apologise for not owning a smartphone less than two years old, here was a device older than me, in near perfect working condition, ready for whatever I chose to throw at it. Planned obsolescence may make economic sense, but it breaks the emotional bond we form with our tools. Only a few of the endless parade of computers I’ve worked on over the years have broken through that barrier.
The machines themselves echo the permanence of their product. Woody Allen says of his Olympia: ‘I bought this when I was sixteen. It still works like a tank.’ Few writers today will leave behind an object that has acted as singular midwife to a career, celebrated or otherwise. I still have my old indigo iMac that for some reason I can’t bear to part with, but I’ve written nothing on it since about 2005. I don’t think I could write on it now, even if I wanted to. In our move to a more disposable culture, something has been lost. Whether it matters is another thing entirely.
The Writing Ball, a blog built from typed and scanned entries (though not with OCR), takes an archival view on the pages produced:
Typing lasts. It’s about addressing the future. Digital text addresses the present, ever fluid and changing.
Typing lasts, but it exists for one reader at a time. It does not allow ideas to grow or find a broad audience. Without access to blogs, I would never have known that the Writing Ball exists.
I used the Underwood almost exclusively for a month. I wrote thousands of words on the thing and over time, the experience felt more and more natural to me. I even toyed with the idea of turning back to the typewriter for final drafts of this essay. But, with the pressure of meeting competing deadlines, it was an indulgence I couldn’t afford.
In my day job, I talk with many innovative people who work at the intersection of technology and publishing. When I ask them how they prefer to read, a common response might be paraphrased as: ‘I love to immerse myself deeply in books and for that I love print, but most of my reading happens in brief chunks online’. The parallel between the containers in which we read and the tools with which we write is compelling. The word processor is convenient in the way an ereader or a tablet is convenient. Convenience doesn’t necessarily give us more free time. Sometimes, it just makes room for more convenience.
But that’s a conscious choice, isn’t it?
This is the thinking behind the Universal Babel Service, a group that espouses the benefits of slow communication. Taking a cue from various other ‘slow’ movements (food, cities, sex, travel), slow communication maintains that the conditions for deeper and richer engagement with text begin with allowing more time both for writing and reading.
By shutting off distraction and slowly iterating my text over and over on page after page, did I engage more deeply with it? I think so. But how deeply did I really need to engage with a 400-word column anyway? It has no pretence to being ‘for the ages’. If it had, I might have been more tempted to carve it on stone tablets instead.
So where does this leave the experiment? And what does any of this have to do with the future of books, writing and reading? A big part of the future of the book, the future that all writers face, is about understanding tools. It’s as important as knowing your medium and knowing your audience. It’s about knowing how things are made.
After a month on the Underwood 310, do I have a better understanding of how Vonnegut made Slaughterhouse-Five or how Woody Allen made Love and Death? Perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that whatever lessons I’ve learned will stay with the machine. This essential workhorse of the writing industry for nearly a hundred years has been reduced to a plaything, an indulgence. I have placed the typewriter to one side of my desk where, for the moment, it remains. As my MacBook deftly handles its melange of twitter feeds, email, browser tabs and a bewildering array of open word processor documents, the Underwood watches, gathering dust.
But still grinning.
Simon Groth is a writer and editor of fiction and non. His books include Concentrate and Off the Record: 25 Years of Music Street Press. His first two novel were shortlisted for the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards and his short fiction has been published in Australia and the United States. As manager of if:book Australia, Simon writes and speaks regularly on the future of the book and took the role of lead writer for the 24-Hour Book.