It's All in the Fingers - Umberto Tosi

Me typing wistfully at the
 American Writers Museum
I featured here last September
Raise your hand if you've ever used a typewriter. Wiggle your fingers if you made a living with one. Thumbs up if you still own one. Our numbers diminish. It's safe to say that most people alive today never as much as pecked at a mechanical keyboard. Despite this, a die hard few collect and still write with them, and some even dream of a typewriter comeback, though it's debatable whether typewriters ever really left us in the way of quills to become antiques. This isn't about technology or trends, however. It's about first love, and bonding with a writing machine in a way that one never could with a computer, even with an hypothetical, pretty robot.

I got my first typewriter at the callous and tender age of 15 - a voluptuous -deco, 1950s, manual Smith Corona "Silent" portable (meaning it weighed about as much as seven or eight Powerbooks.) I inherited it when my father moved up from the mechanical "Silent" to the then very-latest electric model. My father never typed more than one-or-two-page letters with his machine, plus invoices, customs forms and bills of lading needed in his San Francisco food importing and brokerage firm. He typed two-fingered hunt-and-peck style faster than I can type with ten fingers today. I applied myself to the Corona's olive-green keys immediately, rolling in sheets of scrap paper - usually the backs of discarded stationery, imitating my idea of a hard boiled writer gleaned from such movies as In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham.

California Typewriter shop owner
Herb Permillion works on antiques.
Mostly I typed gibberish. Ever hopeful, opted for a typing class at Hollywood High School, determined to learn the proper two-handed method. I was only one of two nerdy boys in the class, in those 1950s years in which girls were still being raised to be secretaries or housewives. Fine motor skills were never my forte. I failed the minimum of 35 words-per-minute sans errors required by the final exam. I had to take a makeup test to graduate high school that year with a D in typing, even though I had straight A's in my academic subjects. As it turned out, typing was the most valuable class that I ever took in high school, given the decades I've put in behind a keyboard ever since then.

Tom Hanks and his prized collection.
I got to thinking about all this recently as I watched California Typewriter, a rave-reviewed, contrarian, Telluride-Festival-launched, documentary gem created by Doug Nichol, and released last August. Variety called it "a playful piece of Luddite fetishism in thrall to the fuddy-duddy designer-chic of old typewriters, most of them manual." The film captures the piquancy of the typewriter ethos, particularly in a marvellously goofy concert by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, which has to be experienced to be believed. Sounded just right for me.

Nichols saved his typewriter tribute from sentimentality by however, by threading it with the true-life story of Herb Permillion, the persevering long-time family owner of the film's eponymous typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, California. Spoiler alert, it shows how he eventually succeeds in his struggle to save his shop from going out of business by, ironically perhaps, using the Internet and building a compelling Website to offer his typewriter maintenance and restoration services to collectors worldwide.

Poster for the 2017 film
The film made me nostalgic. I flashed back to my years at the Los Angeles Times, during what turned out to be the last era of mechanical writing machines. Year after year, I pounded out stories on a then-already-vintage Underwood No. 5 - that collectors now consider one of the most beautiful typewriters ever.

I bought it and took it with me when I left the paper in 1972 and went on to write hundreds more stories and three published books on it. It was my sturdy companion even after I bought my first word processing TRS 80 Radio Shack computer ten years later. For a while I held onto my old machine, along with the Smith Corona I had inherited from my father. But ever-improving computers proved more and more efficient (or I got better with them.) I don't quite recall when I gave my old Underwood to the Goodwill, probably in the midst of series of moves around California. I thought about buying another, just to have it around, mainly. I remember visiting the California Typewriter shop in Berkeley a few times when I lived in San Francisco . It was a little run down, at the time, a folksy place packed with neatly displayed, fully functioning typewriters, some antique, busy with people coming to have their beloved machines repaired.

Tom Hanks figures prominently in the documentary. He is an avid typewriter collector. The film also weaves in pithy commentaries by other collectors, artists and writers who sing the praises of their clickity-clackity machines and talk a lot about writing and creativity as well. This includes a moving interview with the late Sam Shepard, perhaps his last. Guitarist songwriter John Mayer - too young to have started out with anything but a computer - says he discovered the typewriter as a powerful device for getting first-draft streams on consciousness on paper without the judgmentalism triggered by the editing features of word processors.

"There is a percussive quality to typewriting," says Hanks, who has more than 200 in his collection, most of them functioning. "If drums are the backbone of a rock-and-roll band, The sound of a typewriter is the sound of productivity." Hanks even published a volume of short stories, Uncommon Type, each inspired by a typewriter in his collection. He wrote the book on a word processor, by the way, but says, like other writers, that he likes to use typewriters for drafts fragments, notes and letter writing. Hanks went so far as to release Hanx Writer in 2014, a successful mobile app designed to emulate the experience of using a typewriter.

The late Sam Shepard writing at his
1950s Olympia SM9 portable
Other writers have delved into the somatic-creative connection typewriters provide as well. The list is short but impressive, including Larry McMurtry, David Mamet and Woody Allen. Think Pink author Lynn Peril, who also writes with one, ties manual writing machines to cultural evolution going back to the introduction of the QUERTY keyboard devised by Milwaukee newspaper editor Christopher Latham Shoales in the 1870s. She writes about how these at-first intimidating machines came into widespread use as business tools operated by female secretaries to full fledged creative machines. "For a long time the word 'typewriter' referred to both the machine and the woman who operated it," she points out, similar to how the word "computer" morphed from humans hired to do the complex math required for major projects (for decades nearly all women) to today's electronic devices.

After all, No matter how inspired our ideas, and how robust our characters and story lines play in our heads, we don't know if they work until we get it all down on paper - or on screen - and wrestle all of it around - by hand - until it makes sense. Like a potter, we shape the clay, examine it, reshape and reshape it until it suits us, all by hand. We have to string alphanumeric ciphers together until they take on a life of their own, with the power, we can only hope, to evoke fantasies in somebody else's mind.  In that respect we're like piano players and pickpockets, cellists and card sharps, illustrators and illusionists, though without having to be as quick-fingered.

A Smith Corona Silent much
like my first machine.
Technology and arts vlogger Joe Van Cleave gets deep into the keyboard-creative-brain connection in his more than 100 "Typing Assignment" You Tube videos. (Talk about obsession!) "You have direct physical linkage."Using manual typewriters sets up a cybernetic loop between mind and machine, "between the biological and the mechanical," he says in Episode 57. "Manual typewriters involve a different part of the brain than computer keyboarding," he says. Manual typing creates a continual feedback linkage "involving your nerves, ligaments, tendons and muscles... You can feel the resistance. Even with your eyes closed you can tell if you've hit the right key, or if you've hit it hard or soft enough to make a clean imprint through the ribbon onto the paper," he says. "You have very little mediation" to get in your way.

"Compare this to a word processing application hosted by a computer," he says. "You have all kinds of mediation that gets in the way.... "the OS, the mouse, shortcuts, file management and formatting options, spelling and grammar checks... The software is continually mediating the experience" potentially distracting you from purely creative processes."

Another typewriter advantage is the machine's isolation, Van Cleave adds. It's easier to keep what you do private. Typewriters aren't connected to anything or anyone. It's far easier to resist the temptation to hit a button and send out drafts for evaluation by friends and critics too early.

Like many of those who like the direct experience provided by typewriters, however, Van Cleave doesn't see it as either-or. "I don't use a typewriter in place of a computer. To me, typewriters are another technology that runs parallel to computers. A typewriter is a tool I use as part of a larger work flow process," he says. "The typewriter seems an ideal tool for the early creative draft process. ... I'm much more able to just pour out words on a typewriter," he says. Whereas the computer "is a utilitarian wordsmithing tool for crafting the final process, revising and refining drafts" and creating accessible, acceptable formatting tailored to print and e-book products.

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra.
"The Revolution Will Be Typewritten."
The typewriter-computer debate begs the big question for me. That is: I can't find a word processing application that's ideally designed for the creative writer. Word processors are basically document simulation programs with a few writerly bells and whistles - like grammar check. There are ways to go into pure text mode for drafts, but I find the architecture woefully awkward. Computers started out as business machines. Only mobile devices were designed for individual use from the ground up - but with commercially offered apps in mind, buttons and addictive entertainment, not creative pursuits like writing, composing and drawing. Each of those requires add-on apps that never quite seem to fit, even though artists often to a sterling job of making them work. I'm still waiting for that "composing" application, but not holding my breath.

Presently I live with a typewriter - a Smith Corona electric from the 1960s left by my inamorata Eleanor Spiess-Ferris' granddaughter when she went off to college. I was never much for electric typewriters and I pine for old manual machines occasionally. I'm tempted by the idea of sitting at the machine pounding out page after page of inspired draft in manic inspiration. That usually goes with cups of coffee littering my desk, a bottle of bourbon in the drawer and a cigarette dangling from my lips while another burns in an ashtray. But I gave up smoking many decades ago, and imbibe only an occasional glass of wine at dinner these days. Writing means drafts, but mostly polishing paragraphs over and over for me and that calls for a computer. Still, though, it's all still done on that trusty 150-year-old QUERTY. No matter the story, the characters, the issues, the science, philosophy or artistry, it's still all in the fingers!
(This marks three years I've been posting as a member of this esteemed group.)
Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (   




Andrew Crofts said…
My first typewriter was my mother's pre-world war upright - which, of course, I now very much regret not keeping.My main memory is of regularly having to use a pin to prick the ribbon-gunk out of the centres of closed letters like "e", "o" and "a", in order to restore their definition on the page. Fond memories, Umberto, but I doubt the joints in my hands would have stood up to fifty years of that sort of heavy-duty typing.
Marsha Coupé said…
Terrific story, Umberto. Like you, I lack the typing gene and am grateful I have never had to write on a typewriter for my daily bread, though I had a few before the first Apple Computer changed everything.

Typewriters are, as you point out, very trendy st the moment. There is a thriving London Typewriter shop getting a lot of attention from the media.

Antoinette had the idea of starting a typewriter cafe, where hipsters can sip an expresso while typing a letter on watermarked, cotton bond paper.
Rosalie Warren said…
Umberto, thank for this interesting piece and congratulations on your first three years with AE! I'm reminded, reading your post, of my dear mum, who trained to be a shorthand typist in the late 1930s and worked as a secretary for many years of her life. She would have been the first to admit that her general motor skills were not great (neither are mine), but unlike mine her fingers flew with great speed and accuracy across a keyboard. I'd start one of my childhood stories on her Smith Corona and get all upset after my 59th mistake (no correction fluid in those days). I'd write the rest by hand and Mum would type it up for me (this was still going on in my university days). Thanks Mum, and thanks again, Umberto, for this and all your posts.
Bill Kirton said…
Great post, Umberto, and one which awakened a different type of nostalgia in me. I miss using a fountain pen, and writing as if there were two columns on a page, the right hand one left empty for subsequent edits, additions, etc. That's the way I wrote all my plays and my earliest novels. I then typed up the final draft on a portable. But I hated having to make carbon copies (which are all I have left of those early manuscripts). Also, I was never able to 'write' using a typewriter. I don't know if it was the clacking of the keys or the manual labour involved in bashing at them, but 'creation' was impossible for me, so I stuck with the pen. And yet I manage easily enough nowadays with keyboards.
But I'm with you on the writerly image conveyed simply by owning a portable. I got my first one when I was writing revue songs and sketches for our Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. We realised we were actually making a profit from the shows and the rest of the revue company - i.e. my wife - agreed that I could spend some of it on a typewriter. I think it cost around thirty quid.
Ah, now you've made me nostalgic for my brother typewriter which predated my first computer and gave me my first byline. What a wonderful post to mark three years at AE! We are lucky to have you here.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you Dipika, Bill, Rosalie, Marsha and Andrew for your kind words and for sharing your own typewriter memories here. I'm delighted that my post struck a chord - or maybe the shift key of remembrances for a few moments. (@Marsha, fun idea about the typewriter cafe - particularly in a university town. I'd go!)

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