Thursday, February 24, 2011

Do You Miss Typewriters?

"Papa at the typewriter in 1940. He once said, 'Travel and writing will broaden your mind, if not your ass.' Which is why he often wrote standing up."

When I first got into this business, it was not uncommon to find writers who still used typewriters on a daily basis. Now, I'm talking 20 years ago. But it's a fact that back then, Jim Crumley, Robert Parker, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, (hell, even Hemingway had he lived into his 80s) were using typewriters, even if they were powered electrically like the famous IBM Selectric.

'Course, all the writers I just mentioned are dead now, and so too it seems, is the typewriter.

I loved that famous picture of Papa seated at a desk in Ketchum, Idaho, looking healthy and burly, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows, while he pounded out the manuscript that would become For Whom the Bell Tolls. To me the sound of that machine-gun clatter that only a typewriter can make is music to the soul. Especially the clatter from a manual typewriter. Back then I envisioned myself doing the same thing, typing out my stories and novels in single-extended-index-finger style on an old black Remington portable, not unlike the one Papa is using in the famous photo.

I'm a sucker for old typewriters and whenever I see one in an antique store or junk shop, I usually pick it up. I even wrote the first draft of Moonlight Falls on an old Olympic my wife Laura purchased for me at a garage sale way back when. I still have that typewriter, even though the ribbon is all used up. I do not however, have the wife.

I have another identical Olympic that is in pristine condition, ribbon and all. I also have an old Remington Rand Model No. 5 from the 30s or 40s, a pre-war Remington my grandfather used in Europe to type out his daily reports while fighting Germans in France and Germany. I have a one-hundred year old Remington that I can hardly lift (but it was probably considered the highly portable laptop of its day), and several other models, the names of which escape me now since I keep them down in a room set aside for me in my dad's office building.

Here's a writer who also loves her typewriters the way I do. So much so she did a little research on which writer used which machine. You can get the story here!

Today I use a Dell Vostro 1320 Laptop, which I like a lot. I wrote The Remains, Godchild, and The Innocent on Dell laptops, after having penned them out in hand on blank yellow legal pads. In fact, I've gone through several laptops at this stage of the game, and at 46 and a half, I suspect I'll go through a lot more. I'm thinking maybe a MacAir 13" is in order since I travel so much.

I like laptops precisely because they remind me of the old typewriters, even though they don't have that romantic "ding" that happens every time the carriage reaches its limit, and you have to swing the carriage back in place with your right hand, locking and loading it for the next line. There's nothing like a good machine on which to make words and sentences. What I don't like about laptop computers is they grow slow, burn out, on occasion freeze up, or just shutdown altogether, and your work, some or all of it, is gone for good. Such are the risks of all mod cons.

I wonder, if Papa were alive today, what he would be writing on. Probably a laptop. I doubt he'd use a big desktop computer. They wouldn't be portable enough for a man who liked adventure almost as much as he did making up stories. I wonder how he'd feel about For Whom the Bell Tolls not only becoming an Amazon bestselling Kindle book, and at the same time, far outselling the paper versions.

Almost certainly he'd still be writing his manuscripts out by hand in blank notebooks (cahiers), several penknife-sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2's at the ready. Because even though typing and books have gone electronic and digital, one thing has not changed, nor will it ever change for a writer. And that's the enormous possibilities that exist, when you sit down at your writing desk in the early morning and do the existential stare-down with a blank page.


  1. My kids have no idea what a typewriter is like or what it's like to try to use one of those stupid hard erasers with the brush on the end that just tears the paper. Man, I'm feeling old right now!

  2. "And that's the enormous possibilities that exist, when you sit down at your writing desk in the early morning and do the existential stare-down with a blank page."

    Love it!

  3. I'm old enough to remember those manual typewriters. I learned to type on one in grade nine. Sometimes I think about how easy we have it as writers today, when we can just hit the delete button and remove lines of unwanted text, or cut and paste entire paragraphs. No need for any messy Whiteout.

    Great post Vincent, I love the photo of "Papa" :)

  4. When I was little, I had a turquoise typewriter that I used to write letters to friends. My fingers got caught between the keys when I tried to write too quickly, which hurt a lot. My dad -- also a writer -- kept a typewriter around for a long time, because his handwriting is awful. He used it to fill out forms.

    The only thing I write longhand is poetry, because it works better. On the other hand, a good edit has to happen on hardcopy. I'm not sure if this contributes anything to the conversation or not.

  5. I don't have a typewriter, although I was taught to use one at school, 30 odd years ago.

    What I do remember though is the old dot-matrix printers, that also ran from a ribbon, and made a horrible noise as they used to ran back and forth across the page.

    My weapons of choice now, are also laptops. I have a 15" Dell Studio and a small 10" netbook made by a local firm. The latter goes with me just about everywhere.

    I use laptops because I don't really have an "office" in which to work. At least not until I sell my multi-million pound bestseller and can afford the bigger house that goes with it ;)

    Am thinking about an iPad but not sure how this will be for writing. Will see when the new one comes out next week.

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