Friday, April 2, 2010

Click-clack-click-clack-click-ARRRGHHHHH . . .


The question: If I was forced to write a novel on a manual typewriter . . .


By Shane Gericke

I'm no fool. If manual typewriters came with Tina Fey in stockings, I'd toss my computer in a New York minute.

But, they don't.

So I say feh.

And ptoi.

And a double helping of "Get lost, ya finger-spraining creep."

I hate manual typewriters. I despised them when I had to use them--in the 1960s and 1970s for grade and high school assignments, in the 1970s and 1980s for newspaper work--and I hate them more now. I am a romantic about writing. The thought of typing a whirlwind of words whilst lounging in a Scottish castle, or at a Parisian cafe, or on the shore of the Pacific, green waves crashing as gulls cartwheel in sateen sky, makes my heart go pitty-pat. Visiting Hemingway's Cuba, with a glass of rum in hand, well, I can't think of anything cooler.

But that romance doesn't extend to the manual typewriter. Put it this way: If Dick Cheney really wanted the truth from a terrorist, he'd have made the guy type out Ulysses on an old Underwood. The baddie would have broken before reaching the first dirty word, and we would have saved on all those water bills.

Did I mention how much I loathe manuals? No? Well, let me continue . . .

When you made a mistake typing a word, you had to drag out the Wite-Out or that goofy ink eraser, the pink, round, rubbery thing with the brush sticking out the side. Then you typed the correct word enough times to cover the ghost of the mistake. If the error was extensive, you had to rip the paper out of the machine and type the whole page over.

Every. Stinkin'. Word.

If you had multiple carbons, you had to peel apart the layers--paper, carbon, paper, carbon, paper--erase each mistake on every page, put the sandwich back together exactly so the words would drop into in the same places. Then type the correct word. It took forever.


My Underwood typewriter was as solid as a good dad, with a 1950s industrial handsomeness I liked. It was a pain in the butt to actually use.

Being mechanical, the keys were heavy, and so needed to be struck firmly, leading to aching fingers, forearms and shoulders. If you didn't apply enough force, the metal arm that held the letter wouldn't reach the page. The best thing about electric typewriters wasn't the cool spinning letterball. It was the light touch needed to strike a letter. Computers are even better: words appear at the merest hint of finger-feather, and digital mistakes mean a digital eraser. And, there's search and replace to fix errors (or insert a better idea) without erasing dozens of separate pages. Quick, hyper-efficient and effortless. All of which makes you a better writer because there's no physical barrier to rewriting awkward phrasing.

And don't get me started on the war you had to launch when the letter bars got all jammed together. It was like unsnarling your kid's hair when bubblegum got stuck in it. Except you were dealing with inky metal.

Speaking of ink, changing the ribbon was a hassle. You had to physically remove the long, narrow strip from the typewriter, and the ink that saturated it was messy. It got all over your hands and shirt, even if you were careful. When ink clogged up the tiny holes in the metal letters, you had to scrub each letter with a toothbrush, spraying more ink on yourself and desk. Fun!

True, those manuals were portable. But that's misleading. A laptop goes, what, three pounds these days? Sometimes two? And people gripe about how "heavy" they are?

A manual could go twenty pounds. Try hauling that from home to car to office.

I do miss some things about the old bruisers. One was the sound of a hundred manuals clacking in rhythm in a busy newsroom, as reporters and editors type-raced toward deadlines. I adored that industrial symphony. Another was the look of the machines; those intricate steel innards and heavy iron frames had an Industrial Era solidity no laptop or smartphone can match. Still another is the "ding" announcing the end of each line and the rrrrrrrrrrratch of the return when you manually moved the carriage to the beginning of the next line. The Typewriter Song by Leroy Anderson perfectly captures the musicality of those actions:



But typing a whole novel on a manual?

I'd rather be forced to read James Joyce's Ulysses ("... yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan tht he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments if all women were her sort down on bathing-suits and lownecks I suppose she was pious and ...") while standing on a bed of nails. Singing "Sweet Charity" in falsetto. Wearing flip-flops.

And if you knew how I felt about flip-flops ...

Shane Gericke's next thriller, TORN APART, launches worldwide July 6 from Kensington Publishing. He hopes you buy a bunch of copies, because then his editor would smile ear to ear and buy Shane an expensive steak dinner with caviar and Champagne, which Shane would like very much. Visit this dreamer at www.shanegericke.com

10 comments:

Paul D. Brazill said...

Charlie Williams started writing a novel on a typrwriter recently.

http://charliewilliams.blogspot.com/2010/02/typecast-14-legend-of-olivetti.html

Shane Gericke said...

"Ah, Williams, you poor damn bastard," Gericke murmured as he effortlessly typed his reply on his MacBook Pro. "It made ye a fine and sprightly blog item, though, so 'twas worth the pain and suffering ..."

Thanks for the link and for writing today, Paul!

Shane Gericke said...

Hey, everyone, I might not respond to your sprightly comments right away. My broadband died last night--thanks, Comcast!--so at the moment I'm writing at Panera Bread, which has a fine and free wi-fi connection. But, I have to go home to wait for the Comcast repair guy. So, I hope to talk with y'all later. If not, now you know why ...

Meredith Cole said...

Ah, typewriters. They did sound wonderful, but computers are so much better -- I agree with you there, Shane. I love your new torture idea, too. Doesn't sound so deadly, but sure to make even the baddest bad guys crack.

Sophie Littlefield said...

shane, i think you should go around addressing high school journalism classes. you could do a while carmudgeonly "back in my day" thing - though you'd have to get rid of that irrepressibly smile. And maybe get a cigar.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I LOVE panera bread!!!!!! i could write there forever. i could move in there actually. just think - someone else vacuums!!!

Shane Gericke said...

I'd hate to give Cheney & Co. any more ideas, Meredith They're bad enough as they are :-)

Shane Gericke said...

Went back home, cable guy still not there ... worked on lawn and other stuff till Jerrle got home to babysit cable showings-up ... now back at Panera to check blog and e-mail ... yep, Panera really IS way cool, I like this place a lot, Sophie, especially the orange scones ... uh, wait a minute. Can a curmudgeon say "way cool"? Don't I have to say "dang whippersnappers" and "git off my dang lawn 'fore I get the shotgun" and such?

I wonder how many high school kids have even heard of a typewriter? Probably like us hearing someone old talk about buggy whips now ... just can't relate. Be fun, though, to go hang with the kids. They could teach me a buncha neat stuff I never knew existed ...

Terry Stonecrop said...

Your old typewriter is cool, though. But yes, don't make us actually type on them. Buy them for looks.

Michael Wiley said...

I'm still trying to figure out just what the model in the top photo is DOING with the typewriter.