The Classic Typewriter Page

Typewriter Tributes

A Steel Symphony


Taylor Harbin

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 Christopher Paolini.

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.

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