Sunday, November 26, 2017


Smith-Corona Electric

Post-Script: My submission for Typing Assignment # 12, on the subject of thankfulness.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Typing Assignment No.12: Thankfulness

Typing Assignment No.12 is about the subject of Thankfulness. Write a one-page piece however you like - fiction, biography, prose, poetry - whatever, on the subject, and have a photo of it posted online by Sunday, November 26. You can include a link to your image here in the comments below; in the comments for the above YouTube video; or by emailing me at:

Happy writing!


Monday, November 13, 2017

ABQ Type-Out!

There was a particular moment at yesterday's ABQ Type-Out, while standing under the shade of the portal in front of Pennysmiths Paper, being interviewed by a local television news crew, when I had to formulate an answer to the question of "why typewriters." I answered that it was their ability to provide a non-distractive writing experience, a quip rather rattled off the top of my head, but which in retrospect was probably the right line to use.

There are many diverse reasons why a person, in the year 2017, might want to use a typewriter, and thus there isn't just one correct answer to that question. I'm not even certain now whether that was the best answer for myself. Is that really why I type, because I'm so easily distracted? I'm actually not sure.

In theory, the idea that typewriters provide a non-distractive writing experience and thus by implication can make you a better writer is at best an assumption and at worst a straw man argument. There are many competent professional writers who seem to possess the self-discipline required to use computers for writing, among them people like Stephen King. Perhaps the real problem here is not the lack of typewriters, but just an issue of discipline. If a person can't shut off the Internet browser and hunker down in a Word document, maybe there are deeper issues at play.

For example, I know of one writer who uses typewriters, and is constantly on Facebook, morning to evening. First thing in the morning will be posts including some meme about staying out of the way until after that first cup of coffee. Then will come posts of memes about writing, how hard it is. Later will be something about how little progress has been made on that book, and how it's such a struggle. On and on it goes like this, all day long, into the evening when will still be more posting to Facebook, either about typewriters, or coffee, or the writing life and that ongoing struggle to get the book done.

I think I know the problem, and it isn't Microsoft Word; and typewriters aren't going to fix it. Just get the heck off the damned Internet and Facebook, and hunker down and write.

Yes, I do believe typewriters can provide a quality of writing experience different from computers; an intentionality of purpose and a laser-like focus. But let's not kid ourselves. Being a writer is a discipline as much as a skill. By discipline I mean a purpose-driven life, not merely the image of a bootcamp drill sergeant, barking for you to get down and give him fifty more pushups. I mean the kind of discipline you'd see in some lone craftsperson, toiling away in the obscurity of their silent studio to the acclaim of no one but themselves. Constantly honing and refining their craft. Removing the distractions from their life that would prevent their continuous improvement.

Too many would-be typewriter users try to justify their typewriter hobby with the idea that, by writing with typewriters, they will achieve some level of writing they'd otherwise not reach through more conventional means. Maybe they're obsessed by the image of the beret-clad typist, holed away in his flat on the Left Bank, typing and smoking to the sounds of jazz and a steaming espresso machine. Romantic, yes. Realistic, no.

I think it's okay to collect and dabble with typewriters without feeling the need to somehow justify owning them under the pretense that they'll somehow make you a better writer. What might actually make you a better writer is to spend less time on the Internet and Facebook, jibber-jabbering about typewriters, and get down to the serious business of writing. Pen, typewriter, computer - whatever works for you. But toying with typewriters isn't writing. It's toying with typewriters for the sheer joy that typewriters provide. There's nothing wrong with that, no guilt trip needed. Just enjoy typewriters, collect them, whatever. But don't pretend like they're a substitute for the real work required to be a good writer.

Am I saying that typewriters can't be used by serious writers? No. Far from it. If that's what works for you, then keep doing that. But don't shoe-horn typewriters into your work flow just because you're romantically enamored with the concept of writing by typewriter. It might just not work for you. Sure, go ahead and try it. Build a realistic working methodology that includes the typewriter, than use that for a while. Examine the process, see what's working and what's not, then make adjustments. And if, in the course of making those changes, you find typewriters no longer work for you, then ditch them from your writing methodology. Don't just keep using them because you somehow feel obligated because you've labelled yourself as "that typewriter writer".

Mankind, we're a tool-making species. That's what distinguishes us from other animals, discounting the chimpanzees who fish termites out of their nests with a stick. We could probably do that too, if we had the appetite for termites. I think the crucial idea here is we need to be wielding the tool, not having the tool wield us. We need to be in control, to make the choices.

Constant refinement and tweaking of our creative process is just part of being a creative person. It comes with the territory. If you aren't curious about "what if," then you aren't alive enough to call yourself a creative. The crux of creativity is curious exploration. You see something, you prod and poke at it, like that chimp with his termite stick, and see what happens. You observe the results, then modify your prodding technique, or find a better stick, until you see improvements. And on it goes.

Back to the scene yesterday at the Type-Out. We had us some darned nice termite sticks. Portables, medium-sized machines, larger uprights. Manuals and electrics, spanning a range of ages from the WW1 era to the 1970s; from the tiny Hermes Rocket to the hefty IBM Electric and Olympia SG1. Sticks, big and small, a diverse collection able to satisfy the aesthetics of even the most discerning typist. I didn't feel then, and don't now, the need to justify typewriters. That's usually the first thing people ask when they find out you use typewriters. "Isn't it so difficult to use?" "Aren't computers so much easier?" "Gawd, why would you want to use a manual typewriter when a computer is so much better." On and on the complaints go. And that's fine. People can just complain, no sweat. Everyone to their own opinion. But in their complaining, let it be known that most of these people don't understand why it is that we do use typewriters.

As an analogy, let me use classic automobiles. "Why would you want to commute to work in that old thing? It doesn't even have air conditioning, it barely gets off the line, it sucks gas and the brakes are shoddy." Yes, all that is true. Yet people collect antique automobiles and are thrilled to own them, to tinker with them, to polish them and take them out for a Sunday drive. But you won't find them commuting to work in them on Monday morning, that's not why a person collects antique automobiles. And much the same with typewriters. We enjoy tinkering with them, polishing them, getting together with other, like-minded typewriter owners, even take them out for a spin and write with them once in a while. But few are willing to take them to the office and use them, in the way that computers have replaced typewriters. Things have changed, the old order has been replaced with the new, and with those changes typewriters are used in new ways. Back in their day, Model A Fords were the working man's family transportation. The horseless carriage. A practical improvement upon the equine variety. And since then, people who still have Model A Fords use them differently. They are no longer one's daily commuting car or family runabout, but are classics, to be preserved and honored and cherished and tinkered with and fussed over. And driven on Sundays, slow and smooth like, not with the efficiency of that latest Toyota Camry, but with purposeful, deliberate intention, enjoying the experience for experience's sake.

So go ahead and write that Great American Novel with your Smith-Corona. Or drive cross-country with that Model A. But do so knowing the journey won't be the same as with that slick word processor or Toyota. You won't be cruising the Interstate at 85mph, pulling over for a quick Big Mac and fill-up, then back on the highway. Your's will be the backroads of life, more purposeful but also more pedantic. You won't be measuring your progress in sizable chunks of the continent devoured in one day's time. You'll more likely be going from one small town to another, one small piece of writing to another, savoring along the way each nuance of the road, each paragraph and new phrase laid down on fresh paper. It'll be a real adventure, not just a quick jaunt out to the coast. But along the way you might discover something you'd otherwise miss if you took the Toyota.

The single biggest mistake I saw people making at the Type-Out was attempting to touch-type. We forget what it was like before rubbery keyboards and slick software took all the toil out of typing. Then, it took training, weeks and months and years, before you could call yourself a competent typist. Now, people are expected to sit down at a computer and, with virtually no training at all, produce professional output. Bam, whiz, whir and it's done. There's good reason why the image of the old newspaper reporter, banging away on his typewriter with two fingers, his cigarette ash dangling precariously, is so persistent. It's because that old two-fingered technique, as denigrated as it has been over the decades, is so efficient at producing error-free, quality copy. In the end, you'll write quicker using two fingers, given the reality that mistakes will require correction, or even retyping of the entire document. The tortoise over the hare.

"But, but..." you'll exclaim. "My typing teacher drilled into us the importance of touch-typing, yada, yada, yada..." Yea, I remember that, too. Actually, the thing I remember the most from high school typing class, being one of the few boys present, were all the pretty girls. But this ain't 1971 and you aren't learning electric typewriters so you can get a secretarial job. Nosirree. This is 2017, and I'm telling you that those old gin-reeking reporters knew what they were doing when they pecked away on their writing irons with two fingers. They didn't have time to stop and correct, and maybe they had a carbon underneath and weren't about to correct the second copy, too. They had to get it right the first time, error-free.

And here's another thing you might want to think about before criticizing those two-fingered monkeys. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome wasn't a "thing" until computer keyboards. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, will you! I think this is an important point. Touch typing on flat keyboards all day is bad for you, plain and simple. Just because you CAN, because the finger force required to operate a rubbery keyboard is so light, doesn't mean you SHOULD. Where I work, at a major Fortune 500 corporation, the issue of ergonomics and at-risk keyboard behavior is a big deal. People go out on MLOA (medical leave of absence) because of wrist injuries. The company looses money, people's lives are upended, they live with pain and suffering and take a long time to heal. Touch typing might be quick (but is it, really; consider how often you quickly backspace and retype over mistakes, just because you can, hare-like, when you could pedantically and accurately two-finger type with no mistakes and fewer wrist-injuring keystrokes, tortoise-like), but is it safe?

A deeper question might be, do we really need the speed offered by touch-typing on a slick rubbery keyboard? The typical keyboardist rushes through their document, constantly rat-a-tat-tating with the backspace key to erase those frequent mistakes, then stopping suddenly to discover the whole damned paragraph makes little sense because the speed of thought is so much slower than their fingers, and then fondle the mouse and click, highlight, drag and drop words and phrases here and there, having to revise and edit the whole ugly thing until it resembles, somewhat, a well-written piece. Alternatively, you could slowly, methodically think your way through a piece, carefully two-fingering those words into place, in the end requiring less editing and revision and in the process giving your wrists a well-needed break. Take it easy, write slowly and carefully - that's the fastest, safest way to write.

The best thing about typewriters as tools for the writing process is that they teach us to slow down, just slightly faster than the speed of thought, and think before typing, then type slowly, carefully and safely. They also teach us the value of ink on paper, about paper as a valid form of archive and backup, as a way to document the writing process.

I've no real bug about manual typewriters being intrinsically better than electrics, other than their portability and reliability, and the economy of their ribbon system. Actually, given the reality of manufacturing in 2017, a newly designed typewriter, aimed at the enthusiast writer, might look more like a hybrid between electric daisy-wheel plastic wedge and AlphaSmart Neo. For my aesthetics, it would have a standard-width carriage, accepting paper no wider than standard letter sized. Forget those ginormous wedges that took up a majority of one's desktop. It should have a simple and reliable print mechanism, like a daisy-wheel system, but be quick in response to keyboard inputs, with little or no latency. For my needs, it wouldn't require spell check, a thesaurus or even a correcting ribbon and memory system. It would preferably have a cloth ribbon that auto-reverses, for economy over print quality. I can imagine ways to make a cloth ribbon system that advances and auto-reverses, even on a daisy-wheel system, while being designed elegantly simple, using tiny solenoids or stepper motors. It would have a great-feeling keyboard, like the AlphaSmarts have. It needn't be much wider than a Neo, just a bit deeper and thicker to account for the print mechanism. It could be controlled by something like an Arduino board. And it could be lithium-ion battery powered for portability, along with household AC. An electronic typewriter aimed at the enthusiast writer market, not the professional office. A writer's tool that accepts paper as a valid medium for the initial stages of the writing process, but does so nimbly, economically and portably.

Alas, but one can only dream. Back in the 1980s, when I had a Smith-Corona daisy wheel wedge, the thing I liked about it was the quality of imprint from its carbon film ribbon. And the thing I didn't like about it was the frequent replacement cost of those same carbon film ribbon cartridges, which were one-time-use only. I recall that's the thing that motivated me into getting my first manual, some gray Royal with the red badge logo that unlocked the ribbon cover. Yes, I liked the economy of its ribbon; but no, I didn't like the low-quality cloth ribbon imprint. Today, I feel differently. I'm okay with cloth ribbons and their imprint quality, because I harbor no presumptions about a typed page being the equivalent of a professionally printed document. I understand better the place that typewriters have in my writing life. They're like that point-and-shoot film camera. The negatives might be gritty and grainy, but they're raw and real and physical.

These are the things that resonate with me after the Type-Out: answering the question of WHY? Dealing with those issues of intention, and the writing process, and the discipline of being a writer. Dealing with the ergonomics of manual typing, and finding what works best for one's self. And electric typewriters, especially those 1950s-era Smith-Corona Electrics that are small and sexy and so easy to work, with economical cloth ribbons.

I'd like to briefly mention that fellow conspirator Kevin Kittle and I will hopefully be getting together soon to do an in-depth video review of his newly acquired Godrej, recently arrived from India.

Thanks too for all the hard work Kevin put into the organizing the Type-Out; and a hearty shout-out to the staff at Pennysmiths Paper for their support.

Written on AlphaSmart Neo at Limonata Coffee.

Post-Script: Here's the link to a local TV news story about the Type-Out event.

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