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Once a Typist . . .


I'd published two editions of a textbook titled Wordsmithery, so when I saw a photo of a typewriter in a catalogue touting innovation and read its label—The Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter—I had to learn how a typewriter might be specifically designed for a wordsmith. I read the description slowly once, then read it more slowly a second time.


The ad claimed that the manual typewriter (as opposed, perhaps, to the word processor, electric typewriter, ball point pen, or quill) "recalls the thoughtful, well-written correspondence" (as opposed, say, to essay, memoir, novel, novella, poem, play, or song lyric) "of yesteryear"—a flagrant bit of misdirection. Like ads showing such authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Orwell, and Plath with fingers poised above a typewriter keyboard, perhaps a cigarette dangling from their lips, their shirtsleeves rolled up and collar unbuttoned, as if unaware of the camera and the photographer, it was a tenuous link. ("This is a writer trying to look like a writer when he knows full well he is being photographed," E. B. White once wrote on a photograph of himself.)


The language felt tongue-in-cheek, wryly presenting liabilities as advantages, as when it referenced "the steady click-clacking cadence that encourages the patient, considered sentiment of a wordsmith who thinks before writing"—the way, say, writing in silence with a quill pen by candlelight never did. (If only Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, or Montaigne had typed!) A student of mine, eager to use a new typewriter and aware that "you can see tears in Plath's manuscript for Ariel because she punched the keys so hard," said she wanted to hear her own keys: "My apartment is quiet. It will be good to add those click click clicks." A week later, instead of "a click click click," she reported, "It makes a CLACK CLACK" and discouraged patient, considered sentiment.


I smiled at the claim that the machine "faithfully reproduces the eclectic [!?] printed impressions of its forebears" such as "variable kerning" (adjusting spaces between characters), "subtly ghosted letters" (creating shadows behind characters), "and nuanced baseline shifts" (uneven lines), thus "imparting unique, personal character to every letter or verse of poetry." Would readers really be charmed by the tendency of your letter "e" to stick and barely strike the paper or your "m" to smudge the spaces between the stems of the letter? Those features never charmed me.


The first typewriter I ever used was my mother's boxy black Royal. She must have shown me how to push the keys, spell out words in type, scroll in paper, advance the platen at the end of a line with the return lever. From the time, around the age of eight, that Bobby Hall and I spent an afternoon composing one-paragraph adventure stories on it, I was hooked on composing on the typewriter. I felt like a writer because my words were in typeface, just like the stories in books.


But it was slow work. I didn't give every key an equally "firm, purposeful stroke" and some letters were faint, others dark, almost smudged. If I misspelled words, I scrolled the paper up and erased the error, rubbing the page until it was sometimes transparent or worn through. The lines were often uneven after I scrolled the paper back to where I tried to replace a word. No matter how slowly I typed, forefinger by forefinger, clink, clunk, clack, it was frustrating never to have a single page error free, as in books. When I acquired them decades later, I never wished to be, once again, "devoid of technological crutches such as spell-check and deletion."


My parents found me substitutes for my mother's Royal: a Louis Marx toy typewriter on which to print a pretend newspaper, which I never did; a lightweight Smith-Corona portable, on which I wrote a 97-page novel in high school and all of my undergraduate college assignments. In graduate school, I bought a Smith-Corona Selectric, an electric typewriter with a rotating ball of type and a double ribbon with a second white ink strand to erase mistakes that let me throw out bottles of liquid White-Out. Leafing through my Selectric-produced dissertation, I felt that transcription technology and I had come as far as we would ever need to go.


I'm not tempted to purchase the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter, but I remember my typewriters well. "Processing words" about them now on my laptop keyboard lets me almost reinhabit the boy who typed his adventure paragraphs on his mother's Royal, the teenager who clacked away at his novel on his portable, the grad student laboring at his dissertation on his Selectric. For better or for worse, each of them is still somewhere inside of me, prompted by the Wordsmith's Manual Typewriter to remind me that they haven't really gone away.


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