I met Derek a couple of years ago when he contacted me about getting his typewriter serviced. I've mentioned before about how much I enjoy meeting people through my business and meeting Derek and getting to know him as been a real pleasure.
Derek is a typewriter enthusiast, poet, and writer so he seemed like the perfect person to write a piece for this blog. He graciously agreed to do just that and I think he knocked it out of the park. Read and enjoy. Oh, and share your thoughts and comments too.
Why a Typewriter?
Why type on a manual typewriter? What’s the appeal? Hey man, it’s the century of technology—we have these things called “computers,” have you heard of them? These are all the kinds of questions I get when people find out I prefer writing on an analog typewriter (not even an electric one). Am I just trying to be one of those pretentious “hipsters” people gawk and chortle at inside of coffee shops? Why opt to work with a machine that isn’t as advanced as a laptop? Well, the answer is rather simple: the experience.
My parents grew up in the time where “typing” classes were mandatory in their grade school, even high school, days. If they made a mistake there was no handy “delete” button. They’d have to take out that thick eraser, wheel out the page, and attempt to erase whatever error had befallen them. It’s safe to assume why they grew to hate the machines. I don’t blame them.
As for myself, the only “typing” course I had was in middle school and we used computer keyboards to practice on. Happily they did have a “delete” key (I was thankful for that). So there was no hatred towards those machines of the past engrained in me; however, I grew to hate the older, slower computers as I watched technological advances soar and computers becoming more and more advanced. I had missed out on the typing classes, the erasing, the white out stains and spills—all of it lost in a whir of AOL dial tones and Ask Jeeves comment bars. I believe the fact that I missed out on such experiences is what subtly drew me to owning my first manual typewriter (an Olympia SM3 I bought for $35), but I don’t claim that at as the sole purpose for my initial step away from doing my writing on Microsoft Word.
Now, don't get me twisted around a platen roller here…I don’t do all of my writing on a manual typewriter. I discovered poetry in high school and began writing poems myself; granted, I never thought of myself as a writer. It wasn’t until I was in college and heard one of my literature professors make an aside in his usual lecture where he talked about the writing process of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way. Later, my professor would comment on how poets like Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara would type out their poems and listen to the keystrokes and bell rings in order to find a natural rhythm in their work—how words had an innate musicality that was enhanced through typing them out on an analog typewriter. I believe that’s when I delved into the realm of typewriters, bought my first machine, and began typing out my poems on that instead of my laptop in search of the musicality of language hidden in keystrokes and bell rings that I didn’t get from my laptop.
Aside: I know some of you may say, “Why not just simply download the ‘typewriter’ sounds for my laptop so that it sounds just like a typewriter and gives you that same feel.” To you I say there is a wonderful feeling about hitting that carriage return lever—it’s like winning at a slot machine.
As for every day writing, this blog post for example, I opt to use my laptop. Typewriters, to me, are more of a tool for my creative writing and not for writing that requires quickness and efficiency. When I use a typewriter, that moment is treated as reverently as prayer. I can log out of the realm of media and quiet the world around me until all I hear is the machine and my thoughts. On a laptop I can be drawn to log into my email, social media, or any distraction that will inevitably pull me away from my work. So, when it’s time to write I put away my phone, shut down my laptop, turn off the T.V., put on a record and get to writing.
I may be old fashioned in this way of thinking, but when you watch old episodes of William Buckley on “The Firing Line” or hear an older writer give an interview you notice that their vocabulary was immense. They knew what a word meant, how to spell it, and how to use it. One thing I’ve noticed in today’s realm of Microsoft Word writers is that many people rely too heavily on spell check. Sure, there are errors every now and again; however, when I use a typewriter I then have to rely on my own knowledge and understanding of words, how they are spelt, and how they are used. This makes me, as a poet; consider each and every word I type out. When I was doing much of my drafting on a laptop I found myself using words every now and again without complete consideration of its spelling or meaning—laziness on my part, but laziness rewarded via spell check (thanks Microsoft).
To tie together this long rant: why do I use a manual typewriter? The experience. The experience of punching the keys, hitting the carriage return lever, and watching the page go up and up until I’m finished. The experience of true quietness away from the hustle and bustle of a word becoming so heavily interwoven into the fabric of technology that it’s hard to even hear yourself think. The experience of feeling what language is doing, aesthetically or otherwise. I also use a typewriter because, at the end of the day, it’s just plain fun!
So, if anything else, go buy a machine and start typing out letters to friends instead of sending an email or a text; type out your journal entries, grocery list, or chores for the kids (do those exist anymore?), and just have fun with it.
Derek Ellis is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Maryland. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Western Kentucky University. He is an avid fan of 90s music, a typewriter collector, and coffee enthusiast.