Sunday, July 15, 2012

The cost of convenience

I began using a typewriter regularly when I was perhaps thirteen, maybe younger. We always had one in the house, thanks to my mother. She had started her adult life as a secretary and office worker, had learned those skills in high school, and carried them with her throughout her long life. She never matriculated to a computer, but did have an electric typewriter in her last years, so she was keeping up.

Anyway, I was introduced to the typewriter early on. The pure mechanics of it drew me, watching the keys come up from the amphitheater-like setting, making their marks and returning to their seats, much as speakers must have acted in the forum of Rome centuries before.

Machines and mechanical things have always been at the core of my life, I think, and perhaps that is what really set me on course to become a writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say." To that I would add: "And you have a means of saying it."

The first typewriter I actually owned was an ancient Underwood portable. Black, with gold scroll work painted on the frame, white keys with black letters. It had a little bell that went "ding" at the end of the line or when you used the carriage return. Along with the clacking of the keys, it all made a kind of symphony that played along as background music to the words themselves. I was fascinated watching letters form words, words become sentences, paragraphs fill pages.

I have written by hand, of course. There are times and places where that is the only option, and writers are compulsive by nature; we will not be denied the opportunity to put words on paper. I use a computer today because, among other things, finding typewriter ribbons isn’t as easy as it used to be.

My last typewriter was electric, and could almost keep up with my fingers. The only other typewriter I ever owned was so small it fit in my briefcase, weighed only a few pounds, and was so "portable" that I had to make some clamps I could use to keep it from jumping around on the table as I pounded it. Yes, pounded. I once had a secretary who said she could tell what my mood was from the way the typewriter sounded when I wrote. If I was writing something that called for emotion, I punished the keys by hitting them very hard. If the mood was light, so was my touch. When the writing itself was going well there was a kind of flowing chatter from the keys. In later years, when I switched to electronic keyboards, I often broke them by pounding too hard. Fortunately they make stronger keyboards today, because I can still hit the keys pretty hard when I’m really steaming along.

I am limited to a very sturdy laptop now, with a keyboard that is smaller than the ones I grew up with, but I have the advantage of spell checking, cut and paste, typeover and insert; all functions that once required scissors, paste, white-out, fresh paper and even carbons and onionskin and special hard erasers. And I can rewrite with greater ease. There was a time when, if I made a change in page one by adding or subtracting a line, then the whole document would have to be retyped. Secretaries don’t like to retype the same thing over and over anymore than writers do, so you can imagine what a new world this electronic typing and printing have opened to people like me: people who don’t get it right the first time.

It has led, on the other hand, to what I’m sure are sloppy writing habits. Simply because editing and retyping caused so much extra and wasteful work, I wrote more carefully, gave more thought to the words I used before I used them, paid more attention to original organization.

This new way of working is certainly more liberating, but it can release the writer from careful thinking. That is a terrible price to pay for a little convenience.

1 comment:

  1. I've often pondered this same thought. We can write so much more casually than we used to and I think sometimes it makes me over-think things since it's so easy to edit and re-edit.