A Steel Symphony
I am not a professional. I don't have any publishing credits to speak
of. I'm still in school, barely six months away from a Master's degree.
At first glance, I might seem out of place in the company of so many in
the typosphere who are more accomplished. So, why am I here? I'm going
to tell you a story. My story.
I began writing when I was fifteen. After years of battling severe
juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), I finally had to put my original
dream of being a comic book artist behind. It was the mid 1990s.
Japanese anime (Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z were the two most popular
at the time) was taking America by storm. I was sucked in like millions
of kids. It had a certain something that wasn't in the Looney Toons. I
wanted to give that thrill to others. Lush, beautiful artwork, and a
riveting story. But I was gripped by a chronic disease, which the
doctors said would likely never be cured. My bones burned and my heart
cried because I had no way to tell the stories that I had been dreaming
of. I needed a new medium.
There was no bolt of lightning, no chorus of angels, and no
cloud-parting epiphany. I stumbled into writing entirely by accident. I
was at a summer camp, watching some kids play cards. One of the girls
had a book with her entitled "The Last Mermaid." They say you're not
supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I did. Part of me wanted to
sit on the rock face with that mythical creature, and another part of
me wanted to be swept away by the waves, carried out to the endless sea.
I got bored and left. But as I walked along, I stopped and shrugged.
"I'm going to write a book," I said aloud.
My family's reaction was what you'd expect. "Oh really? That's nice."
They didn't think I was serious, but being the kind people they are,
they decided to help me along. My parents had saved enough money to
upgrade their desktop computer. This was back in the day when you had
to be rich to get more than one. Dial-up was the only way to access the
internet. As a gift, my brother and I got the old computer, which was
used for many rounds of Age of Empires (though I was always more of a
Command and Conquer guy).
With a few conceptual notes and no idea what I was doing, I dove in. My
first novel was a fantasy epic entitled "The Eclipse Chronicles." It
was over 150,000 words long, full of plot holes, bad dialogue, and by
most industry standards, pretty awful. But I didn't care. My JRA had
forced me to give up baseball, karate, and most of my childhood. Now, I
was doing something in spite of it, not because of it. In order to
write faster, I forced myself to learn how to type correctly.
I broke up my book into two halves, self-publishing the first, "Lunar
Dawn," in 2009. "I wrote a book," became my favorite way to end
arguments. I dreamt of being discovered by a literary agent and then
going on to sell the story to a big New York publisher, just like
Then, I graduated high school and things changed. Four years passed. I
started dozens of projects and completed zero. Each one of them was a
half-hearted attempt to recapture the surge, the passion that had
driven a teenage boy.
What changed? What brought on this sudden case of lethargy? Well, the
internet for one. Advances of the Digital Age made it fun to get online
and waste time. Youtube. Facebook. Online streaming. Games. When I was
young, we couldn't afford to buy games on CD, and downloading took
twelve hours or more, often failing. Now, I was rewarded for doing
nothing, and there was always something new to look at. Even when I
forced myself to sit down and try pecking out just 1,000 words, I ended
up retreating to Google, convinced that one more factoid of research
would get me through.
In the summer of 2013, I was working a part-time job in Nashville. One
night, after again failing to complete a 60,000 manuscript, I realized
the reckoning had come. Something had to change. Either I would take it
seriously, or not. I was a writer or I wasn't. Prospective writers are
often told to read as much as possible. I figured more books was the
answer. So, one weekend while visiting my parents, I went to my
favorite thrift store: The Shed.
I found my books, about a dozen James Michener titles. But these were
located on a shelf at the front of the store. I knew there were
hundreds more in the back, piled up in random order that would take
hours to look through. As I made my way down the aisle, something
caught my attention.
It was a typewriter. A baby blue Underwood Golden Touch, just sitting
there in a booth. On any other day, I would have passed by. I only
bought books when I went to The Shed. But on that day, something tugged
at my sleeve. I knew what a typewriter was. I'd seen plenty of them in
old war films. But I'd never put my hands on one that actually worked.
They keys were light and crisp. The bell, clear and distinct. The
ribbon was slightly faded, and the music of it all coming together was
intoxicating. It was like driving for the first time. You're giddy and
equally terrified because you have no idea what you're doing. My hands
quickly adapted, and I soon had three paragraphs on the sheet of paper
someone had left behind. A few people gave me looks. Who wouldn't? A
grown man, grinning from ear to ear, banging away on an old machine.
It was only $35, but I didn't buy it. At the time, the color wasn't to
my taste, and the font was script. Yet, the seed was planted. Three
weeks later, on July 30, I bought my first typewriter: a 1935 Remington
Rand Model 1.
What happened next? In six months I wrote two books and about half a
dozen short stories. None have been published. I'm still working on
that. But it's ok, because writing was fun again. People love to joke
about others who are drawn to vintage things. "So, you're a hippy?"
"Oh, you're trying to channel Hemingway's ghost?"
No. I use a manual typewriter because it makes writing fun. I've got
five machines now, each one with a unique feel, personality, and story
behind them. Yeah, I like reading about famous authors and what they
used. Sure, computers are quick, paperless, and efficient. They're also
robotic, sterile, and a dime a dozen. That's great for college papers
and office work, but not me. I'm a creative writer. Our breed has never
been concerned with being like everyone else.
Computers are wells that access the endless river of information we
call the World Wide Web. We have browsers with popup blockers and lists
of our favorite sites. And yet, the river keeps breaking through the
patches in the dam. It keeps trying to drown you. It's only gotten
worse as technology has become more sophisticated without matching
security. Identity thieves, pirates, and government snoops can dip
their hands into our well.
A typewriter is safe, a way to be completely alone in your thoughts
without fear. When I sit down at my desk, I can almost hear my Royal
KMM say, "Tell me all about it. Just between us, kid." Typewriters
encourage blunt, raw honesty.
Here's a thought. Let's say somebody writes a book. It gets published
and becomes famous. After the writer dies, the book is hailed as a
classic, the Great American Novel. Students groan when their teacher
assigns it. Others read it with fascination wondering how such a
masterpiece was created, and how one person could capture so much about
the human condition at that particular time and place.
A copy of that book is great, especially a first edition. But an
original typewritten manuscript, sprinkled with morning coffee,
tobacco, smudged ink, blobs of White-Out, crossed-out sentences and
hand-scribbled notes? That stack of paper is the clearest portrait of
what the author was feeling in that moment. Published books are refined
and polished. Drafts are messy, flawed, and rife with uncertainty, much
like their human creators.
For me, the typewriter made the act of writing a whole experience
again. It's not just my thoughts appearing on a screen. It's watching a
stack of papers, my story, grow like a flower in the box on the desk.
My energy flows from my brain and my heart, through the fingers, and
animates the steel keys. The sound of the keys, the bell, the
vibrations when you're really on fire, and the motion of the carriage
is like music. I hear echos of it whenever I look at one of my
machines, and I feel the tug again. Even if I have no particular story
for that day, I want to write. Computers can function without humans
prompting their every move. But a typewriter is purpose-built. Once
I've animated it with my own life's energy, I want to keep coming back
and see it dance.
It's like playing your favorite song. You know every beat, every
melody, but there's never regret.
Would I be this enthusiastic if I had been born fifty years ago, when
typewriters were the industry standard and common as bubblegum? I'm not
sure, but I'd like to think I'd still use one.
In a time when people are being pressured more than ever to conform
with society's cutting edge, to "get with the times" and "quit clinging
to the past," doing something for the sheer pleasure remains one of the
best reasons for doing anything at all. It's been almost one full year
since I made the switch, and I'm never going back.
I eventually got myself an Underwood. A Touchmaster Five. Blue.