Must have been a slow news day for both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to feature articles about typewriters. Yes, Virginia, typewriters. Those ancient devices that physically impacted black ink on to white paper that supposedly were swept aside in the great digital age. Like vinyl record players in recent years, the typewriter appears to be making a comeback. Surprisingly, the biggest fans for typewriters might be the iPad generation that grew up in a mostly digital world. Maybe they are steampunk fans, where pre-digital computers in the 19th-century were mechanical devices and dressing up in Victorian clothing is a cool trend. Although a manual typewriter cannot compute, it does share the mechanical attributes of pre-digital computers. For those digital users who don’t want a typewriter to be simply a typewriter, there is a USB-compatibe typewriter to plug into the iPad. I’m sure the younger generation will get a kick out of famous writers in front of their typewriters. But those of us in the business of writing, a typewriter will always be a typewriter.
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I fell in love with the typewriter when I was in kindergarten. My parents were attending a conference to discuss my future, the principal rolled a piece of paper into an IBM Selectric typewriter, showed me what keys to press, and the little silver ball spun to type out my name like magic. Fully distracted by this wonderful device, I kept typing out my name as the principal and my kindergarten teacher erroneously inform my parents that I was MENTALLY RETARDED (which was how it was stamped in my records that I saw ten years later) and needed to go into the special education program. Actually, I wasn’t. I had an undiagnosed hearing loss in one ear that made it difficult for me to distinguish between similar sounding words (i.e., glass and grass) and skewered my speech patterns for years. Learning how to read and write made it easier for me to distinguish the differences between similar words. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
When I grew up in the 1970s, typewriters were still king of the technological hill. When my family shopped at Gemco at Hillsdale Avenue and Ross Avenue in San Jose, my father and I would moon over the 20 typewriters on display, starting with the cheap manual typewriters and ending with the electric typewriters. Alas, no IBM Selectric typewriters since they were business typewriters sold only at business stores. Gemco went out of business to be replaced by a string of similar stores until Target came in. Typewriters were soon phased out when home computers became king of the technological hill.
Over a handful of birthdays, I got a toy typewriter that typed in ALL CAPS, a blue Brother manual typewriter with a black-only ribbon, a white Brother manual typewriter with a black-and-red ribbon that I kept for a dozen years, and, in the early 1980s, I got an electronic typewriter with film ribbon, correction tape and daisywheel cartridge that I also kept for a dozen years. I was still using my typewriters in the early 1990s while in college even though I had a Commodore 64 and a near letter quality dot matrix printer. When Macs and laser printers became more prevalent at the college library and computer labs, I would enter my final draft into the Mac and print out a clean copy since instructors were threatening a failing grade for handing in a dot matrix print out. I eventually gave away my typewriters because I kept moving around too much and relied more on computers to get my documents done.
My father and I parted ways when home computers came around in 1980s. He was strictly an analog guy and I became strictly digital guy. Later, when he gave me his old car as a birthday present several years ago, he grew frustrated at my apparent lack of mechanical knowledge when repairing the car. I had to pointedly remind him that my brother became the auto body specialist and I became the computer tech. After my mother passed away from breast cancer in 2004 and I saw a counselor a few years later, he was amused that I got a new manual typewriter that was identical to my old white manual typewriter (except the new one was made in China and a piece of junk). I was rediscovering my passion for writing and spent many evenings typing away on my balcony. Surprisingly, the neighbors didn’t complain about the tat-tat-tat and ding noise. Then again, they were too stoned to care.
Although two-thirds of my first novel was written behind the steering wheel of my car, the other one-third was written on a Brother GX-6750 electronic typewriter. I still use the typewriter for writing the rough drafts of manuscripts. If I’m having a problem writing a short story from beginning to end and have an outline of all the scenes, I would use the typewriter to write the scenes in reverse order. As most writers who uses typewriter knows, you really have to think before you start typing. Writing scenes in reverse order requires some serious thinking. After all the scenes are written and revised with a red pen, the pages are typed into the computer for further revision.
The typewriter is dead, long live the typewriter!