That old familiar staccato of keys striking paper

typewriterMy writing career began after the dawn of word processors, so I have never written anything of consequence on a typewriter. I found myself reflecting on the role of the typewriter in my own writing career after reading actor Tom Hanks’ piece in the New York Times about his obsessive love for the machines. 

My mother was an executive secretary, and she was a pretty fast typist. I remember as a child the sound of her banging out letters, thank-you notes and the like on a manual Royal that we had at the house.

When I was researching The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, I found my father had written a few nautical-related short stories, which he probably hammered out on the same machine. The stories were written before I was born, and he never talked about any writing aspirations he may have had in those early days. Nevertheless, those stories showed that his creative side was asserting itself and that he had aspirations to embrace it even as he was settling into the routine of small-town life and the family electrical business.

Later, after he made the break into nautical archaeology, he used an electric Royal for many years. I’m not sure where it came from, but it definitely wasn’t knew. I seem to remember he had to do some refurbishing to get it working.

After we moved to Texas, he bought an IBM Selectric II, which Hanks describes as a “status-setting” machine that “made the manual typewriter obsolete.” I inherited the old electric Royal, which I kept on a rickety metal table in my room. I used it to write my own short works of fiction.  It was an odd addition to a teenager’s room, but it probably played a role in teaching me the discipline of writing. having that commanding piece of machinery sitting there was both inspiring and intimidating. It seemed to say, “I’m here, now get to work.”

I typed a few school papers on it, including a spoof of “Romeo and Juliet” that my ninth-grade language arts teacher liked enough to let me read to the class. I think that and a few of my father’s letters may be the only remaining products of that Royal, which I abandoned when I left for college.

As a child of the word processor, I’ve never felt the allure that Hanks describes for the manual machines, but I do understand their commanding presence. Much like that old Royal, a typewriter demands to be used, to be fed blank sheets that can be filled with its ink-stained staccato. Its clacking keys trumpet achievement, and conversely, their silence echoes louder when the words don’t flow.

I remember listening to my mother type a letter, and I could feel the tension in the pauses when she struggled to find the right word.

Over the years, I’ve considered using a typewriter for some projects. I tend to write first drafts as a stream of consciousness. Many of the first versions of my newspaper columns were written by hand, often on the backs of receipts or coupons or whatever paper I could find. Part of the revision process involved transcribing those early scrawls onto the computer.

While I appreciate Hanks’ nostalgic love for antiquated tools of trade, I can’t deny that I am a child of a different age.

The hardest part of the writing process is getting the words on paper. Whatever tools make that easier, I’m willing to embrace. Yet I can’t help but wonder: would a typewriter add to the creative process, the firm clack of the keys providing a rhythm for the prose? Or is the entire idea folly, another distraction to which writers too easily fall victim?


About lorensteffy

Loren Steffy is a writer, speaker and consultant. He is the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012. A journalist for more than 25 years, he was most recently the business columnist for the Houston Chronicle.
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