I started writing when I was still in elementary school, on a manual typewriter that weighed more than I did and had been bought for me by my mother at a garage sale. I think she paid five dollars for it. I know she regretted her purchase after I finished teaching myself to type and started writing stories at three o’clock in the morning. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big deal in our modern world of nearly silent keyboards and computers, but a manual typewriter is LOUD. Especially when it’s being used by a seven-year-old whose mode of typing is better described as “hunt and peck assault at ninety words a minute.” It was like gunfire in my bedroom every night, and it’s probably a miracle that my mother didn’t smash either me or my typewriter with a hammer.
(I still hunt and peck, just like I did back then. Only now I hunt and peck at a hundred and twenty words a minute, once I really get going. This is because practice makes perfect, and I practice a LOT.)
Starting on a typewriter meant that when I made changes, I had to re-type the entire page. Since I’m a compulsive reviser, I got into the habit of typing everything out three or four times before it could be called “finished.” It was time-consuming and probably killed a lot of trees, but it was also very useful, because it taught me about discipline. If I was going to write, I needed to approach it seriously and with the understanding that even a sentence could be an hour-long commitment. I wrote light, silly, frivolous things, just like any kid, but I did it understanding that I was going to do a lot of work before I was finished.
These days, I write on a laptop computer more powerful than anything NASA owned the year I got my first typewriter (and no, I’m not that old; I grew up in the 1980s). My keystrokes are still a little harder than they need to be, which I find comforting, even as I wear out a lot of keyboards; somewhere in my head, there is the quiet knowledge that typing should always sound like fighting a battle against the whiteness of the page. Totally silent keyboards creep me out a little bit. And I’m still deeply disciplined about it. I re-type sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters until they begin falling together the way that I want them to. I write out timelines and scribble connection charts on sheets of notebook paper, making notes that mean absolutely no one to anyone who isn’t me. And it all falls together.
I think I was always going to be a research nerd and a rewriter, but the typewriter solidified it. The typewriter made me become the kind of writer I am today. I wish I still had it. I would give it a place of honor on a desk of its own.
And maybe a hug.