The Love of a Typewriter

by Adrienne G. Perry

My mother kept her college typewriter in the basement of our house in Cheyenne. It came in a heavy, jade green case that made whoever carried it lopsided. I didn’t give it much time then. Typewriters were for filling in official forms or addressing a special letter’s envelope. An occasional plunking of the keys satisfied me, as did the fast, cranking sound of loading paper around the machine’s cylinder. I learned enough to know to use two sheets, but in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, all of my friends and I wanted computers. Typewriters were like great-great-aunts watching public service announcements from their La-Z-Boys. Their time had come and passed.

Around 2009, my opinion on typewriters changed. I was working fulltime at a boarding school and my writing—what writing!—had veered off into a ditch. When I was visiting a friend who does book arts in Western Mass, we stopped by the “Amherst Typewriter and Computer Store,” which I had passed largely without curiosity during many years of living in the Pioneer Valley. I thought, “This might be a fun way to get back on the horse.”

Wood paneling lined the store’s walls. Papers, vintage laptops, and personal computers cluttered its surfaces. It smelled of cigarettes and housed gorgeous typewriters of different sizes and temperaments, which Bob, the owner, was happy to let us test-run. I remember, fine and mechanical as a praying mantis, a small, bright green typewriter that would have wiped out my savings. I chose a 1930s Smith-Corona with smooth, cat’s eye keys. Bob loaded a new ribbon and showed me how to reverse it for extra use.

Back at my apartment in New Jersey, I slid in two sheets of printing paper and wrote. I do not remember what I wrote, but I do remember it involved ladybugs and I was pleased—both with the tactile feel and the sound of the typewriter’s keys, but also with the way my writing appeared when not constantly edited and second-guessed.

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Over the last eight years, writing on a typewriter has played a key role in getting writing done, minimizing self-censorship, and writing in more imaginative ways. My handwriting is virtually illegible and goes too slowly for drafting, but typing on the Smith-Corona is fast, clear, and connects me to a well of thought and language beyond my surface-level thinking. In working on my novel yesterday, I rewrote on the typewriter a scene I’d worked all the juiciness out of. In the typewritten draft the tone darkened, the sense of persona clarified. I’m not sure this rewrite represents the “right” direction, but the sentences and imagery were livelier and got me thinking anew.

During her visit to Houston last year, Annie Proulx spoke to a group of young writers. She talked about the pleasure of getting a nice notebook you’re excited to write in and a pen you’re excited to write with. At the end of a day of writing, she suggested, try to make one or two sentences so beautiful they’re like sculpture. The way Proulx feels about a journal and pen, I feel about a typewriter. It brings me back to the pleasure of writing, of crafting worlds with words.

(Note: Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, was born the day this post was written, Valentine’s Day.)

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014-2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.

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