June 14, 2016
The Magic of Writing on a Typewriter
Photo credit: Kayla Dean
He carried a floral gift bag bigger than any purse I owned into my kitchen. My birthday present. I wore a dress the colors of the ocean, my hair curled, my makeup done for our night at the philharmonic. I couldn’t wait for the night to start, but lingering excitement came over me as I suspected what might just be in that floral bag.
The tissue paper susurrated as I swept it aside and withdrew a wrapping paper-covered box. It was a carrying case, and inside was my 1948 Remington Rand typewriter. The tiny metal arms stamped with letters and numbers fanned around the green-gray shell and the black ribbon that transfers the ink to the creamy linen pages. The silver lever that moved the type to the next line gleamed. A tiny part of me suspected, but I didn’t let myself believe, that this glittering slice of magic was in that bag. It was the most romantic gift I’ve ever received.
I felt like Hemingway or Fitzgerald or even Zelda just looking at the thing, even though my typewriter is from a completely different era. As I pressed each fingertip into the key, I realized how much more effort it takes to produce even a word, to make your fingers move in tandem.
When I type, I think of the person who possessed it before me. Did she type only at work, or did she place that typewriter into the black carrying case and write among the trees?
I think now of the similarities that must exist between my typewriter and the machine my granddad used to have, back when he could type 90 words per minute on a manual typewriter without mistake. I think of the writers who wrote every single draft on these things, replacing ribbons when they dried out or arms when they broke off, and lugged their machines to desks and park benches to write.
Typewriters weren’t always such a novelty. The backspace bar existed even in the forties, but you could never completely erase your work. It was inconvenient then, but now there’s something freeing about allowing yourself to make egregious typos over and over again. It’s a gift to hear the gears click and the keys clack as the letters walk across the thick, linen page. There’s something magical about slowing down to write, taking the time to think gently about the things that matter without worrying about how long it takes.
I’d always wanted a typewriter so I could finally escape the glowing computer screen. Now, I can’t imagine a more charming way to reengage with technology and simultaneously disconnect.
I admit that I didn’t end up using the typewriter for much beyond my first drafts. It soon became the best way for me to map my characters’ emotions onto the page before a plot took shape. My first drafts on my typewriter often start with a tail of dialogue or a shocking first line. I’ll usually throw that part out, rejecting it again and again until I find the right entry point into the story.
Most days, my typewriter spends its life on my bookshelf waiting for me. Days go by, and sometimes I don’t always get to write. The truth is, a typewriter doesn’t make writing any cleaner than it ever was. I still jot down notes in the margins and lose track of pages, but the most satisfying thing about a typewriter is that they are one of the most beautiful relics we have of an era we have no memories for.
When I write, I wonder if the person who bought this typewriter in 1948 was a writer like me. When the words are borne onto the page with a clack and the sentences punctuated with a ring at the end of the line, I know that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I may never know for sure who owned this typewriter first or the journeys my Remington Rand might have taken, but that piece of the past will always be the elegant alternative that lets me find a window into the past.
Kayla Dean is a Vegas-based writer who reports about arts and entertainment. She also interviews writers and blogs about living a creative life on kayladean.com. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @kayladeanwrites.