Intimate with words

I write Facebook posts. I write blog posts. I write my sister. I write coy texts to my wife. Writing is how I know I am alive and registering something, really paying attention. Writing, for me, is a means for connecting the many unconnected bits of my life. Lately I’ve been thinking about how the physical act of writing had a lot to do with those connections.

As a young writer, laboring on term papers in high school and college, I had very little in the way of technology. My tech, if you want to call it that, was a gift from my parents, an Olympia manual typewriter. At the time it felt like this cool, shiny new gizmo, but that wore off after the first term paper. Having taken a speed-typing class the summer before, I was pretty fast, boasting that I could easily type 60 mpm (mistakes per minute). It was a very noisy class, with 20 clattering keys shattering the hot, dry air in the classroom. I didn’t know the teacher, who taught the business courses (I was college bound), and found her to be about as mechanical as the rattling machines. “Get your hands on those home-row keys… go!” she would cry, and we’d be off to the races, typing some drivel, like
“asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;asdfjkl;” on and on, and then we’d write about that famous brown fox, the quick, brown one that jumped over the lazy dog.

Typing a term paper usually — no, always — involved batting out the whole thing on the night before it was due, which meant that the time for careful analysis was over, if it had ever begun. I would make some statement, and sometimes go looking for a quote to corroborate that, then looking back on the resulting page or two, I would abandon it and start over, either because what I had created was pure dreck, or because no such quote by any sane writer existed in the many books I had hauled from the library to my dorm room. At some point I would reach the point where my mind was fully engaged, and I was personally in a sweat, it being about midnight by that time, and many pages of thinking yet to be conceived and typed. At a certain point in this state, I started pulling words out of back corners of my unconscious, laying them on the page, and bit by bit, I gave birth to the paper.

When I first opened my Olympia typewriter, it came in a sleek, gray case with a single page of paper inserted in it — a typing sample, in German, saying something about the wonderful qualities of this typewriter, and of course it was crisp and beautiful to look at. I don’t remember the exact wording of the sample page, but it ended with “… der ganze Welt” (“the whole world”). The machine weighed about 25 pounds and appeared practically indestructible, a word processor for the industrial age.

My papers usually started out looking pretty good, despite the occasional correction tape laid over misspelled words, and characters that somehow had become misaligned. The times when I was aware that the ribbon needed replacing was at about 1:30 a.m., when I was in the last third of my paper which boldly (and rather foolishly, as it turned out) tried to find something in common among three wildly different plays, Oedipus at Colonus, Faustus, and The Nuncio. After over a month of thinking — pure procrastination, really — I plunged into the writing of the paper, which I was desperate to complete. After a few false starts, I hit on the fact that Oedipus had blinded himself, and was dealing with his miserable life, post-gouging. Blindness was a quality that all the characters shared, in one way or another. (I would give anything to find that paper.)

When I say ‘false starts’, I’m not talking about opening a new file, copying and pasting what I had from the previous draft, something like that. I had to take the page I had in the roller at the time, and either angrily crumple it and hurl it across the room, or just put it aside so I could recopy it. Either way, I put a fresh piece of paper between the rollers, got myself settled, and typed.

The machine had a built-in governor of sorts: if you tried to type too fast, the keys would all mash together where they met in the middle, and you had to carefully pull each key apart from the others, and hope that you didn’t bend any keys. This usually involved getting ink on your fingers, ink which if you weren’t careful would wind up on the sheet of paper you had in the rollers. If you did, you had to rip out that sheet and retype.

Now here’s where the magic took place: each time I had to redo a page, I re-formulated, re-combined, re-imagined, and expanded, and the result, as I was sweating about the lateness of the hour, was a better statement of the topic than any of the previous drafts. These were what I call circumstantial drafts. You don’t decide to re-think, re-word, you just do. After all, you might as well, and the sheer frustration with the plodding mechanism of the thing brought forth some amazing words, a cake baked with a completely new recipe. Another dividend was that my word choices became more sophisticated. I became very intimate with the structure, the texture of words. The proof of the paper, if there was any, was in what the professor would later write on the front cover. Not all my papers were a hit with my teachers, but the ones that received praise enjoyed the unexpected attention, the extra practice I got putting those words, carefully and laboriously, on the page. I feel as if I should thank my parents for providing me such a rudimentary tool to work with; it prepared me for all the future writing I would do, including this piece.


My word processor in 1970