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Ahh, yes. Typewriters. Some things are better left forgotten.

remington typewriter

But don’t tell it to this guy:


If you do, he’s bound to go off on you in plaintive tones about how there’s something essentially different in the words recorded on a device with levers that mechanically cause pieces of metal in the shapes of actual letters to slam against a real piece of dead tree. The words are better than those on a laptop. It’s not a difference in style: It’s a real, essential difference. I’m sure you just wouldn’t get it. Not mainstream at all.

After all, that’s what JD Salinger used, right?

I remember manual typewriters. I learned to type on one just like that Remington up there. I think my dad bought it at a yard sale for ten bucks in the early 80’s — complete with case. I think I still have the deep callouses on my fingertips I accrued from my first stab at novel-writing when I was about 14. I got about three attempts and a total of 100 pages or so into In Search of L. Ron Hubbard before giving up and deciding to spend my youth reading car magazines and masturbating the way I figured everyone else did.

That novel was to be about a really cool psychologist/private eye in Chicago. In the classic, noir way he was to be approached and hired by a sexy, mysterious woman to find the elusive founder of Scientology, who in the ’80s had already been missing for years. My protagonist wore tweed jackets with patches on the elbows and had a hot secretary who was a bit of a manic pixie dream girl. He also drove an orange SAAB Sonett and owned a Schmeisser sub-machine gun. He smoked a Meerschaum pipe. He was everything I wanted to be.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far into the story. I couldn’t think of where to go with it once I got past the opening chapters.

Do you want to know one reason why (besides me being 14 and not knowing much about Scientology nor psychology and barely knowing how babies were made)?

Because all I had to work with was an manual typewriter.

The mere act of getting words on a page was so onerous, and the prospect of needing to endlessly retype to correct errors or make alterations so daunting that combined, it was enough to put me off of trying to finish the manuscript. It was hell.

Some will point out that there were thousands of books written solely on manual typewriters over the years that would put any of my drivel to shame, and they’d be right. Thing is, almost all of those were written in a time when there was no alternative to typewriters. As soon as word processing became easy and affordable enough for average literary schmos, most of them let go of their old clackity-clackers. The advantages of word processing were too great, and carbon paper sucked. The ones who held on to their IBM Selectrics were either superstitious, set in their ways, or technologically impaired.

Now, I admit there’s something about writing on a typewriter that is substantially different and might affect the quality of the end product in some real way. I’m talking about something more real than what’s heard in derpy hipster odes to the sensuality and the concrete lucidity of using a machine you can see work and which gives you a very direct experience of letters being formed beneath one’s fingers.

The real difference is this: When you’re using a typewriter you’re thinking very, very hard about the next word or sentence to write, because you can’t just highlight, delete, and start over. You’re making an investment in material and risking a lot of lost time with every depression of each key. You’re careful because you mentally don’t want the paper and ribbon to go to waste. And anything more than a minor (very minor) correction is going to force you to retype the page from the start. So, yes: this difference can be assumed to affect the language that eventually gets written, and maybe the ideas as well.

But for those who insist that the end product must necessarily be “better,” there’s a fallacy in play: We just don’t know. Who’s to say that the modern way of writing on computers that automatically correct our most common spelling mistakes while we rip through 10K words a day results in a product that’s really of lesser quality? Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe getting the physical parts of the machine out of the way has helped more ideas flow, and faster. Maybe writers are less hidebound now, and willing to take chances. Starting over now doesn’t even mean losing a sheet of typing paper: it means clicking file>new document.

Anyway, of all the things I miss about the old world — including vinyl albums, news at the top of the hour on AM radio that played actual music, and buxom women in Halston wrap-around dresses — typewriters are among the things I miss least. They were what we had to use at the time. I can’t help but feel that the faster, easier, and more directly I can get my thoughts into a readable form, the better everything is about the whole process — and the end result. I’d feel the same way even without autocorrect for grammar, speling spelling. and punctuation;

And now I’m thinking that I need to finish that L. Ron Hubbard book. It’s finally time. I have the technology.

BTW: Check out my real, honest-to-God novel at I started writing it on a legal pad in Spain in 1992. Take that, evil hipsters!