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Typewriter Tributes

Why I Use a Manual

Why the author uses manual typewriters in his daily work


Kevin McGowin

I am a professional fiction writer and literature instructor living in central Florida. I work every day at the fiction, writing at least 750 words on whatever my current project is. I've published eleven stories the past two years, written a novel and a novella: and I did it all on "antique" manual typewriters. It didn't always do it this way; I used to use word processors and computers exclusively, for everything I wrote. I am thirty years old, and by the time I was typing my own papers in high school, the typewriter was already a thing of the past.

It's not a matter of some hazy principle, then, or because I'm set in my ways; I'm by no means a "Luddite", nor do I (so far as I know) try to live in the past, affecting nostalgia for a time I never knew. I have two computers, with most of the usual up-to-date features and programs--doubtless already outdated, but I upgrade every year or so. I use e-mail frequently and daily, and maintain two web sites, both related to my teaching. And of the eleven stories I mentioned having published in the last two years, nine first appeared in online journals, a decision which offered me a bit more exposure than the dusty hard copy on a library shelf which, when its quarter is up, is regulated to the bindery and the even dustier and less-frequented anonymous stacks. Now this matters less, as even the most time-honored and prestigious of magazines and journals that publish literature often maintain web sites and archive their back issues there, online.

So if you do an internet search under my name, you'll probably come up with quite a few hits, of which a large percentage are pieces of fiction. You can access them with the click of a mouse, right there on your screen. And I wrote them all on my old manuals. I began this process in 1993, and by the next year had moved to typewriters almost exclusively--because I'm convinced it improves my writing, or at least makes it more like the platonic ideal of the writing I see in my mind's eye that I would like to produce. And since I've made the shift back to the typewriter, I've written more and with more discipline, been less hasty and sloppy, and have seen improvement and now feel more confident.

I rarely encourage my students to write this way (as if they would anyway), and indeed I've noticed a significant improvement in freshman writing since I first taught composition at the college level, in 1992: fewer misspelled words, for one thing, (which may be the result of the spell-checkers in the word processing programs), and better diction, probably the result of their having a built-in and easy-to-use thesaurus and dictionary at the touch of a button. And I'm not bothered by this in the least--on the contrary, as is evidenced by their in-class writings, students have gradually learned from these devices, which many instructors saw as a sort of collusion or even "cheating" when they were first introduced. And regardless of the arguments against computers and internet publishing, etc., the fact is this: somebody's gotta write it, and somebody's gotta read it, just like it always was. At least for the foreseeable future, that is.

When I first undertook serious creative writing, I wrote mostly poetry, which I usually wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, which (with variations) many poets still do. I then typed the revised poem out on an electric typewriter that had seen better days. When I later bought a word processor, I composed the poems the same way but typed them into the word processor, which of course saved them in its memory--and I found this, coupled with the word processor's monitor and spell-check device very helpful in terms of revisions, which I now did more often, probably to the overall betterment of the poetry. Before long, I even composed a few at the word processor keyboard.

I did the same with the fiction I was beginning to write more and more often. I hadn't written much fiction during the younger, "poetry" years, and I never could get the hang of writing prose longhand--it took too much time, and I lost too much, as I thought faster than I could legibly write. Most of my "prose" then consisted of the papers I had to write for various college classes, and I wrote them all at the electric typewriter, getting blasted for errors of manuscript format and spelling until the word processor came along. Then the composition went reasonably well (well enough for me to hold my own in a competitive graduate program in English), at least in "academic" writing, which for me then as now is a much more technical and rigid form of writing than creative work, and for which the computer, when I finally got one, worked very well. I could ramble on and on with few misspelled words and correct manuscript format, and could move around large blocks of text and cut and paste from other documents, always recycling, always cutting corners wherever I could. For me in that particular realm, the word-processing computer was the greatest invention ever: it almost seemed to do the work for me. And that's why it didn't work for fiction, for me. I became careless, sloppy, hasty and complacent. I speak only for myself, but I am personally acquainted with three very well-known American novelists who are by no means elderly who use typewriters for composing their creative work for this very reason.

I came back to typewriters the long way around, then, and when I did it was to the classic manual that I went--the electric seemed just like a substandard word processor to me, and I always felt that if I was going to compose on an electric typewriter I may as well just keep going at it on the computer. But my reasons were aesthetic, too, and when creating an art form this makes sense: I found that I loved the lack of electricity, of not being "plugged in" to the wall, the feel of the hammers sculpting their shapes onto the paper.

Manual typewriters seem to me to have their own personalities, unlike electric machines or especially computers--they have different feels, different sounds, and different looks. One has to find the appropriate rhythm to work on such "instruments", and that rhythm to a large degree dictates the tone and flavor of the writing, and, at least in my head (where the work gets done anyway, or not), seems more unique than if I were to attempt the pieces at the same generic computer keyboard. I find my concentration enhanced, my sentences more taut, and by not being able to move around huge blocks of text I find myself more in tune with the narrative flow of the piece. In fact I came to these conclusions soon after I first used a manual for my serious creative work, typing a couple of short pieces just to see how it would feel; I now use manuals in my creative (and sometimes even my "academic") writing exclusively.

I own about ten typewriters, nine of which are manuals in good repair and several of which are "antique." I use different machines for different kinds of writing--I'm writing this "personal essay" on my aforementioned first antique manual, a black 1940s Royal KM (like my initials--a famous novelist who admired my poetry gave it to me in 1993). It types small, and works well for essay-type writing. For correspondence, including cover and query letters to editors and publishers, I use a 1935 L.C. Smith upright--I love the way it forms numerals, and the click, the brisk action with which it forms its letters, which are larger than those of the Royal. People like to get letters typed on the Smith, I think--it's personal, in this age of laser printed mass mailings and the letters are so clear. It types a little slow, which makes it perfect for letter writing, although you might not want to try a novel on it.

For that I use the centerpiece of my collection, a beautiful and fast Underwood 11 that has a sound that reminds me of rain. For me, as for many other writers who used (or still use) one, the Underwood (beginning with the classic #5) remains the professional writer's machine. And for me, it will continue to remain so.

Many novelists have preferred portables, often Royals or Underwoods in the 20s through the 40s or so--but when I'm on the road I use my 1950s Olympia Deluxe. It's heavy for a portable, but it's fast and it's accurate, a truly great writer's machine--the noted novelist Don DeLillo told me recently that save for his first novel, which he typed on a Royal portable, all his other writing, including ten novels (most recently the monumental 800+ page Underworld) has been typed on this machine, and, unlike myself, he does all drafts on the typewriter. I mark up the typescript of the first draft in pen and then type the revision into the computer, where I can later revise it again if need be; but the composition itself is done on the manuals.

Among my other machines is a Remington Noiseless #7, the most recent addition to my collection, which I keep by the bed or take with me on the road and use to type out extended thoughts and ideas, a sort of "notebook", as it were. I also own a later Remington portable and a 1960s Royal portable that belonged to my mother, in addition to a huge and rather ugly Underwood from the 50s with a 19-inch carriage I'm perpetually in the process of restoring, and though I don't yet use it, I love it. My wife and I presently live in an old apartment. We hope one day to have a Queen Anne-style house with hardwood floors and a working typewriter in every room, all of which will see some use, I promise you.

But until then and even then, the aesthetics of my small collection and of my fiction writing are intertwined, and though I remain convinced that certain kinds of writing are by nature appropriate to the typewriter or that certain typewriters are better than others for certain modes, the central fact remains that I do it because it works for me in a world of aesthetics--I enjoy manual typewriters, and I enjoy writing. So what I enjoy the most is writing on a manual typewriter. The results are whatever they are, and they're forever changing--but if you ever see them, well, I hope you like those, too.

Why I Still Use a Manual Typewriter

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