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Stolen Moments with a Manual Typewriter

[A bold, unbridled true story of thievery and love, of rejection and passion.]


Bill Meissner

Photo: Christine Meissner

Thieves have no romance for an old typewriter. I learned that a few weeks ago when, in the middle of the night, a burglar took one look at the 1948 Royal Quiet De Luxe manual typewriter in my English office, then promptly slipped away with a laptop from a nearby office. The next morning, the Royal's black and white keys grinned sheepishly at me, and at that moment both of us seemed to realize the fleeting value of a vintage typewriter, and how it takes a true writer to appreciate its qualities.

Sure, there are other ways to write besides the typewriter. History has witnessed hunchbacked men with stone tablets and hammers, scribes with parchment and quill pens and paper cuts, digital screens burning their pale square retinas into the night, but for me, they will not do. Instead, give me the typewriter that memorizes my fingerprints: like a lover, it could recognize me anywhere by touch. Give me those round enamel keys that make me feel each sentence beneath my fingertips. Give me concertos played on those keys, each one more melodic than the next. Listen: a lone typist's songs can be heard for miles.

For the writer, the typewriter is an endless testing ground: great stories are born here, or they die on the dark and stormy carriage. Poems, too, are conceived here, or they perish, stranded like hitchhikers on an empty roadside, just a line or two short of their destinations. But if a person writes often enough, and with passion and detail, those stories or poems are able to walk home before dawn.

If that indifferent thief had removed the cover and peered into the belly of my metal-and-hinge beast, they might have seen the entire alphabet, waiting there in the leaden shadows. Those 26 letters are sometimes uneven in their inky symmetry, but always ready, always true in black and white. Those letters can stamp out sentences that can transport the reader to the middle of a cornfield, to a Nebraska truck stop, to the Taj Mahal. Those sentences, like the edge of a cliff, can make a person dizzy. They can make the reader float down a calm river, or make the river cascade with rapids. They can surround the reader like a choking python; they can make the reader sigh, or pull the threads out of a stitched-up heart. I firmly believe that if Walt Whitman had clacked out Leaves of Grass on a typewriter, he certainly would have exclaimed: Out of the cradle endlessly typing! I celebrate you! Let me sing to America on this wondr'ous machine!

Ah, typewriter, my single or double or triple-spaced friend: I'm not sure if I'm writing with you, or you're writing with me--but perhaps it doesn't matter. What matters is I always come to you, supplicant and humble, an entire book stored up in the fragile bones of my hands. I always come to you, not quite master, not quite slave, but something in between.

So whenever I get the chance, I poise my fingers above my typewriter. Sitting on its wood pedestal like a thought that needs to be expressed, it waits for my touch; it waits for me--like Adam or Eve or just some Neanderthal gazing in amazement at the sunrise--to invent that first perfect word.

And to that fickle robber who slipped into my office and rejected my Royal, I say Shame on you! Shame on you for not valuing the typewritten word, the way Hemingway and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike did, so we could savor the world around us. Shame on you for taking the easy way out, settling for an emaciated 4-pound LCD-screened laptop with wireless capability instead of my loud but lovable 30-pound baby. And double shame on you for exiting my office without, at the very least, typing on the blank sheet of paper in my Royal's carriage, a single apology: Forgiv me, but I just cant think of anytthing to tyype.

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Bill Meissner's most recent book is the novel Spirits in the Grass (University of Notre Dame Press, fall 2008). He is also the author of The Road to Cosmos, a collection of short stories about the unique characters in a small Midwestern town (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006); a second book of stories, Hitting into the Wind (Random House hard cover, SMU Press paperback); and four books of poems, including American Compass (University of Notre Dame Press). He teaches creative writing at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, and is the proud owner of (approximately) 21 manual typewriters, including his surviving Royal Quiet De Luxe, upon which he types letters and commentaries on his students' poems and stories. For more about his books and writing, visit his web page.

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