…I will now claim–until dispossessed–that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature…The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells… He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.
—Mark Twain, ‘The First Writing Machines’
I own more than one typewriter and an undisclosed number of moleskine notebooks, and whenever I make this disclosure I am required to justify the extravagance. Apart from being a repressed sentimentalist, I am keen to experiment how different tools affect the way we write, and whether there is any sense in using antiquated methods when Microsoft Word is practically begging you to let it write your essays by itself.
Apparently, the first manuscript written entirely on a machine was Mark Twain’s ‘Life of the Mississippi.’ I say apparently, because who is really keeping track of this, and how does this help my argument anyway? Form dictates I should disclose some informational material to justify the text. But really what follows are the findings of an experiment, the first part of which was conducted on a Brother typewriter of a delightfully disgusting green:
[here follow the paragraphs written on a typewriter, unedited]
I begin by i e yr
I begin with the typewriter. In that first sentence the ribbon broke free of its bindings twice, and my fingers are black at the tips. I still havent decided upon a way to standardise corrections, so I cross out with whatever useless symbol I find. The machine requires everything, but the system must be invented. It is devotional, and requires demands conviction. Too much conviction. I pencil infaint letters, but ignore all but the most jarring mistakes.
Though this was the standard writing tool for a cnn century, its influence has largely been ignred. In his essay on “Projective Verse”, the poet CHarles Olson claims the typewriter can “indicated exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of the syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases.” Unlike writing by hand, typing is jarring, rhythmical, violent and surprising. There is a sense of wonder when you read the finished page. The idiosynchrasies of the type are no longer the personal ones of handwriting, but the objectivity of the machine. The typewriter is neither personal (and therefore mocks sentiment), nor uniform, in the sense of official or impartial.
Way before mobile phones threatened the sanctity of dictionaries, the typewriter constantly asked the necessity of all letters, the importance of grammar, the effort of revision. The typewriter is evil and it is god and it is antifundamentalist.
it is sad therefore that all its questions will never be answered, that word processors have dragged us back into the tyrrany of uniform spelling, autocorrected grammar.
[now back to normal]
Perhaps it is already obvious, but the awkward, annoying typewriter is my favourite tool. As I said, it requires conviction, and elicits short, declarative sentences, lists. In a previous article I spoke about Olson and Frank O’Hara’s use of the typewriter, but in prose the most obvious example would be Hemingway. But there is a very real difference between Hemingway, Olson or O’Hara using a typewriter in the 30s and 60s, and my own recent tappings (talent aside), and that is the deep estrangement the machine causes in me. To reappropriate Twain’s quote, the typewriter (which is now the older machine) is full of “immoralities”, but what corresponding “virtues” do we gain from computers?
The next method, step two. Handwriting. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this.
[now we come to the handwritten segment; again, unedited]
Handwriting is utterly boring. It allows for mistakes, but rarely interesting ones. It screams ‘stream of consciousness’, which depends on the brain, and that is usually where ideas go to die. Handwriting remains horizontal, but merely out of convenience, and is either ugly or pretty, but always disappointing. It employs scholars to decypher old scribblings. When I read that a word might be “nice” or “noise”, it is very interesting and I’m glad someone else did that work. I think maybe handwriting is for people who enjoy paintings, but I like pictures in very fast sequences of dark and light, edited by an unhealthy man in a small Californian room.
If typewriters are infinitely demanding, the problem with writing by hand is that it requires so little. It is the first thing we are taught at school and it is the last thing we think about. Writing by hand is banished into the realm of note-taking and diary-writing, damning connotations. There is also the aesthetic sense, which is either too pretty or infinitely confusing. My own handwriting is utterly disgusting. I never learned cursive properly, so its half printed, half joined-up, it randomly changes according to what pen and paper I use, and it stinks of neglect.
Writing on a word-processor is obviously schizophrenic: it rewards speed and flexibility, but it is also a gateway into a hyperlinked land of crazy. It took spectacular effort to quote from Olson when using the typewriter (finding the book, awkwardly placing it under the machine, holding it in place with one hand while the other slowly types one letter at a time), but quotation on a computer becomes all too easy. The word-processor makes an entirely different demand upon the writer: the ease with which we can edit and quote is such that we are now required to think not just as writers but also typesetters and publishers. We must choose the appropriate font, line spacing, alignment, and indentations. We really should also check our sources more closely, since it took us all of two seconds to appropriate a chunk of text, but that very ease renders the very practice of checking references questionable, almost ridiculous. Why bother, when we are moving so fast? The word processor is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. It rewards not so much concentration as energy and enthusiasm. Everything can be modified in an instant, words can be substituted. There is no real reason for writing anything in a linear fashion. Paragraphs can slide any which way you like, sentences magically vanish and reappear after three lines. Not since my last written exam, and rarely previously, have I ever written anything from beginning to end.
The conclusion of the exercise is that we still have options: there are still reasons to try notebooks and typewriters, to damage fingers of rusty keys and dirty hands with ink and graphite. I maintain that pencils are stupid and immoral, but it takes a pencil to appreciate a pen. Black ink. Sometimes you need to break free of the computer, but I assure you that sooner or later you’ll want to break the fucking typewriter. Did I mention I had more than one? Insurance against impatience.