It's All in the Fingers - Umberto Tosi
|Me typing wistfully at the|
American Writers Museum
I featured here last September
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.
|Tom Hanks and his prized collection.|
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|
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
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.
"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."
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 Name, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His 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. (Umberto3000@gmail.com)