In Praise of Another Old Technology

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… I love the hand-crank sewing machine, fountain pens and candle-lamp; I love the simple perfection of the stick that is the rimu nostepinne. And, it turns out, I love the typewriter.

writer-1421099_640Proper manual typewriters, that is. None of this pansy give-me-electricity-or-give-me-death stuff. The whole point of the typewriter nowadays is the freedom it gives you: freedom from electricity, software upgrades (or crashes), printers, digital mass surveillance, illegible handwriting, planned obsolescence and blue-light-emitting screens – to name just a few.

And, of course, there’s the sound of typing. Tom Hanks says laptop typing sounds “mousy… cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. [Nothing wrong with knitting socks, Mr Hanks.] Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK.”

I’ve been reading the book The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt, a book packed full of history and helpful advice, along with a horde of fascinating snippets. For instance: the first documented user of a typewriter was a blind Italian countess (back in 1801); you should never use WD40 on a typewriter; and keychopping – the practice of cutting the keys off old typewriters to use for making jewellery – is like “declawing a cat and throwing away the cat.”

L. Frank Baum, 1899
L. Frank Baum, the man behind Oz

There’s also a discussion of different makes and models of typewriters, with mentions of the people who use/d them. Agatha Christie and George Orwell used Remingtons, as did George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Mitchell. e.e. cummings used a Smith-Corona portable (with, one is tempted to speculate, a broken shift). Nick Cave uses an Olivetti; as does Cormac McCarthy, who cannily sold his old one for over a quarter of a million dollars and then replaced it for under $20. Ho Chi Minh used a typewriter known as a Hermes Baby, which doesn’t exactly fit with the revolutionary image.

I myself have a powder-blue Brother De Luxe ultraportable typewriter, which weighs a smidgen over five kilos in its case. It is relatively young, having rolled off the production line in Nagoya in February 1969, and is still in very good working condition. A few days ago I took the outer cladding off to give it a good clean, but that was all it needed, besides perhaps a new ribbon in the near future. I didn’t pick it apart further, because a) I wasn’t entirely confident of my ability to put it back together properly, and b) whoever put those screws in wasn’t messing around (and I have a twisted screwdriver to prove it).

typewriter clean
My desk, mid-operation. Note the convenient disassembly diagram – which may be for another typewriter – and the extracted fluff to the right.

Nonetheless, there is something very capable-feeling about being able to take a machine at least partially apart and then successfully put it back together again (with some assistance from a spare pair of hands and the muscles attached to them). All the more so, as I am not naturally mechanically minded. All I found inside was some gunge and fluff – unlike others who, according to Polt, have found everything from a mummified mouse (minus head) to five hundred dollars to a wasps nest. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

The point of a typewriter, of course, is to use it. It is no longer the most efficient way to produce text, but efficiency is seldom a guarantee of quality. Those of you who are au fait with the modern phenomenon known as NaNoWriMo may be interested to know that there is a group who knock out their 50,000 words on typewriters. One, Mike Clemens, says he’s heard the bell at the end of each line likened to a personal word-count cheerleader – and of course it always helps to be able to see your progress stacking up next to you. (On which note, bring back paperweights!)

Honvéd utca 13-15. a volt Külkereskedelmi Minisztérium I. emeleti helyiségében. Fortepan 7676My own plan is to write – or at least draft – a novel or play on this typewriter. Not immediately, since I am at present in the midst of rewriting/edits which are best done on computer, but hopefully in the not too distant future. Because I have at last found another phrase to rival the beauty of piston-filling fountain pen: annotated typescript.

Working Title

Titles are tricky things. A good title needs to catch the imagination, pique the interest, and yet still bear some relation to the contents – without giving too much away. It needs, in fact, to resonate. That’s a lot to ask of a mere word or phrase. That’s a lot to ask of the author who has to come up with it.

Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of creationSome authors are fortunate enough to come up with a title straight away. Wilbur Smith claimed that the title was the only good bit about the first novel he wrote (The Gods First Make Mad, if you’re wondering). Dame Agatha Christie had the title for Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? before she had the faintest idea what it would be about, having heard the phrase in chance conversation and deciding upon the spot it would be the title of her next book. (The U.S. publishers spoiled this bit of history by titling the U.S. release The Boomerang Clue, despite the total lack of boomerangs in the book – something which irked me greatly as a child.)

Other authors struggle. Children’s author Judy Blume says “I always have trouble with titles for my books. I usually have no title until the editor has to present the book and calls me frantically, ‘Judy, we need a title.'” Triple-Pulitzer-winner Carl Sandburg claimed “We don’t have to think up a title till we get the doggone book written,” but it always helps to have a handle to refer to it by. Something, perhaps, a little more specific than “that thing” and more evocative than “WIP.”

Janez Šubic - Pismo
Enter the working title. Working titles have many uses. They provide a convenient reference for computer files, they help you keep your head together if you’re working on more than one project at a time, and sometimes they even end up as the final title.

Personally, I’m all over the place. Consider the four titles of my Works in Progress.

Blood of Kings is about the fourth title that play has had (former titles include The Eye of God and simply David). It may be the last; I don’t know yet.

Dead Man Talking hasn’t had any other titles that I can remember; nor is it likely to, since the piece has appeared on stage under that name. (I thought of a much better title last year, but someone else had already used it.)

I can’t take credit for the title The Black Joke, since I pinched the name off the ship. I think it’s a good title – despite its links to a bawdy song – and shall likely keep it.

HMS Black Joke (1827)
The most current of my WIPs goes by the working title of Tsifira, a title which now has nothing to do with the contents of the book and will definitely be changed (and I’m almost sure to what). I originally titled it Crowner’s Quest – a black joke of my own, as while it sounds like it’s about a quest for a crown, it’s actually the old name for a coroner’s inquest. Eventually I grew tired of the joke (such as it was) and changed the title to the main character’s name. Which then changed. Next time I write a book I think I will try to do it faster so I don’t end up with so many changes…

Oh yes – the answers to the quiz. Tomorrow Is Another Day (winner of the state-the-obvious title) was published as Gone with the Wind; First Impressions became Pride & Prejudice; All’s Well That Ends Well (spoiler!) was retitled War & Peace; and Susan‘s main character was renamed Catherine after someone else published a novel named after their heroine, also called Susan. Then Jane Austen died, and her brother arranged for the novel to be published under the title Northanger Abbey. F. Scott Fitzgerald had several title ideas, the last of which was Under the Red, White and Blue – but the novel was nonetheless published as The Great Gatsby.