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Writing Systems

by Erik Rhey

The demise of the manual typewriter was more than just technological evolution. It meant saying goodbye to the writer I used to be.

In 1996, I bought my first manual typewriter, a late '40s Royal Quiet Deluxe, a sturdy matte-gray portable clamped into a hard, yellow case. I purchased it for ten dollars at a yard sale in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from a retired newspaperman who spent 30 years at the Milwaukee Sentinel pounding out community news, obits, and cop beat stories on it. The typewriter was in great shape — clean, oiled, and with a fresh ribbon. I was 22 years old, and that machine represented the first concordat with myself that I was to become a real writer. Ten years and eight typewriters later, the Quiet Deluxe is still my most reliable.

I brought it home and plunked it on my desk. The typewriter fit nicely into my naïve macho archetype of what a writer should be:  the lonely man in a faded undershirt pounding away in obscurity with a dirty glass of whiskey and a cigarette glowing in the ashtray. I taped two pictures inside the typewriter's case. One of Dylan Thomas and one of Charles Bukowski's grave. I cut my teeth on that typewriter, producing countless unfinished, ill-conceived, or just plain melodramatic short stories.

A few months later, I discovered that my Royal model was also a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. This discovery led to untold hours on eBay trying to find the typewriter models of the other literary titans. My collection expanded to include a Hermes Baby Rocket, the mainstay of John Steinbeck, and a Corona Zephyr, the stalwart of World War II correspondents such as Ernie Pyle. I required that every model I own be in working order, and I've tried writing on them all, with varying degrees of success. Like old cars, manual typewriters have mechanical souls that carry the histories of their owners, as well as the idiosyncrasies of their making.

I can safely say that working on a manual is an experience that most young writers will never have in the future. After writing on a computer, then an electric typewriter, then a manual, and then going back to a computer, I've noticed that a manual typewriter changes both the physical and mental process of writing. It starts with the act of typing. The mushy, milquetoast taps one applies to a computer keyboard won't cut it. You must employ a combination of force and precision. Hit the keys too softly, and you will not get a good impression on the page. Get sloppy with your fingerwork, such as hitting two keys at once, and the type bars will bind and jam. You have to work for your words, and your reward will be calloused fingertips as tough as nail heads.

The first mental consequence of working on a manual is economizing your words. Due to the effort expended and the lack of word-processing features such as cut, copy, paste, and easy deletion, the revision process is not a wholesale endeavor. It is retyping, word-by-word, line-by-line. The thought that every word you type may eventually have to be retyped forces you to decelerate your narrative synapses and make more judicious word choices.

There is also the issue of attention span. A typewriter is meant for only one purpose — writing. A computer offers a plethora of distractions from your manuscript. High-speed internet beckons like the sirens calling to the Argonauts, tempting users to check email or look up a quick fact or word spelling. What often starts as a simple fact-checking procedure leads to an hour or more wandering through the infinite labyrinth of Google or downloading pirated music. Even if you are engaged in a creative activity, staring at a computer's LCD is very similar to watching TV, and thus it is too easy to cut a tough writing session short and grab the remote.

We live in a time when ADD has become the norm and even greeting cards have microprocessors. Many writers will never know the simplicity of a completely self-sufficient device that can be used anywhere at any time, without electrical outlets, surge protectors, lithium-ion batteries, Wi-Fi hotspots, or Ethernet cable. How can a writing device exist that does not need three minutes to boot up, does not crash, is incapable of having anything installed or stored on it, and is uncustomizable (other than maybe stickers)?

As for me, I've already lay down in front of the steamroller of technological advancement by making a laptop computer my full-time writing implement. My typewriters have become ten-pound knick-knacks that inevitably are slipping into disrepair. Dust is caking in the dark recesses where the type bars live, and the carriage returns are mysteriously sticky. The ink stains on my fingers from changing ribbons have long since washed away. I'm back to hitting the Alt/Tab key combination every five minutes to open Firefox and check my email. My writing sessions rarely last more than 45 minutes. My stories have gotten longer and more convoluted. Ten-page stories are now 20 pages, and what I used to accomplish in four drafts now takes seven. My fingertips are back to being as soft as leaves of Lamb's Ear.

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Articles in this Issue

The Death of the Dream, by William G. Gabler
Here, by Crystal Gandrud
Katrina's Art, by Alan Huffman
Geology, by Shannon Applegate
Prelapsarian Studies, by Connie Corzilius
Group Psychology, by Simon Leys
Writing Systems, by Erik Rhey
August 2006


Erik Rhey is a fiction writer and journalist originally from Wisconsin. Ironically (in the context of this essay), he is the features editor at PC Magazine. His work has been published in The Melic Review, Plum Biscuit, and Digital Life. He is a second-year MFA student at The New School in New York City, and he currently lives in Brooklyn.

Where loss is found.

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