Clack, Clack: Getting it Down in Longhand, Typewriter and Word Processor

I was listening to Julia Turner’s podcast “The Gab Fest” on Slate the other morning about the recent changes in how words are put on paper—for example not on paper at all but on a screen—and how that affects what words people write. There were those in this discussion who felt it affects them negatively—they like to see the ink on the paper—but what can you do. “Word Processing” is here to stay.

It did get me thinking how the changes have affected me. I write a story almost every day for Dan’s Papers and have done that since I founded it 52 years ago. Whatever the tools are at hand, that’s what I use. If you figure 365 days in a year, I have written somewhere near 19,000 stories. [expand]

The tool of choice back when I started—in 1960—was the manual typewriter. I was a college student then and in the summer had it on a desk in my bedroom in my parents’ home in Montauk. Actually, I didn’t write my story on the typewriter, at least at first. I’d write it in pencil on a yellow pad. I did that because on the yellow pad, I could erase or cross out and add things and subtract things, something you cannot do on a typewriter. After I got it the way I wanted it, THEN I’d type it up on the typewriter. Off to one side, I’d keep a small bottle with a white liquid called Wite-Out in it. If I’d type a wrong letter, I’d backspace, put some Wite-Out on the wrong letter with this tiny brush you’d dip in it, wait five seconds for the Wite-Out to dry completely over the offending letter, and then type it over with the correct one. This typed article I would then present to our printer up the island. That is what he printed from using a complex process that involved hot lead, a linotype machine and a flatbed press. Of course, I’d use carbon paper with a second sheet in the typewriter along with the first. That way I’d have spare sheets of the article if the original were lost. And yes, we did have staplers and paper clips back then.

Every once in a while back then you heard stories about some famous author—Ernest Hemingway or John Dos Passos losing a 1,000 page manuscript of what he wrote because he left it in the bar at a hotel or he got drunk and threw it in a fire or something. My writing was not that important of course. But I still didn’t want to lose anything.

After awhile of this, I began to discover that the stories I would write did not need to be written out first on a yellow pad. The voices were in my head. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the voices. But if I used the typewriter, I could. So I’d type it up at high speed, make corrections on it in pencil and that’s what I’d give to the printer. (Again, I’d make carbon copies.) (If you needed an original and two copies, you had to have three sheets of paper with two pieces of black carbon paper separating them.)

You’d buy carbon paper back then in thick boxes, in the same way as you would buy ink cartridges for a printer today. We didn’t think anything of this method of writing. It’s just what we did.

Turner had three guests on her podcast for this discussion, and as it turned out, to me anyway, only two of them were familiar with how a typewriter worked. They hadn’t been old enough to use one when the typewriters all got put in the dustbin. All they knew were word processers.

How typewriters worked was you typed on a key with a letter on it that, several gears and levers away inside, would cause one lever to rise up and make an imprint on a piece of paper that was covered in that one spot with an inked ribbon. The ink from the ribbon would transfer to the paper on being squashed. Thus a letter, for example Q, would appear in black ink on the paper.

Do I have to go on with this? Why not? The paper, of course, had to be held in place in order to be struck with the lever properly. You couldn’t just have this or that letter be random on the paper. How they did this was they had the paper wrapped around a cylinder made of steel inside but rubber on the surface. You’d put the paper around this. The cylinder, with more wheels and gears, would get itself moved sideways as you typed so the different letters could write as they were supposed to, and then you’d pull a lever and the tube would move so the place the striking would take place would be on the next line.

In offices at that time, knowing how to type on a typewriter was a useful skill. Secretaries had them, but executives did not. When an executive wanted to get something written by typewriter, he’d call a secretary in and speak to her what he wanted it to say and she’d take dictation in pencil on paper in something called shorthand, from which, later, she typed.  I of course, acted as my own secretary when writing something up.

During those early years, Dan’s Papers only came out in the summertime. In the winter, my wife and I would take a plane somewhere to see another part of the world for four months. We were in the South of France one winter, in Guatemala another, in Hawaii another. And so, I bought a “portable” typewriter, which was the same sort of thing you’d have on a table, but with a case around it. They called it portable because it also had a leather handle, so you could pick it up like luggage, even though it weighed about 20 pounds. Again, we never gave this much thought at the time.

One year, we lived for four months in a remote fishing village on the beach on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. I was happy. I had my portable typewriter. I took with me as luggage two reams of paper and 50 sheets of carbon paper. I was ready.

Well, I wasn’t ready. I’d type in a chair on the beach, and as the days went by, the black ink on the paper got lighter and lighter. It was so dim after awhile, you could hardly read it. It was the ink on the ribbon wearing out. I went to the two stores in this fishing village. Neither sold ribbons that would fit a portable typewriter. Finally, a spear fisherman vacationing there from England figured out what I should do. Since a byproduct of spearfishing is octopus ink, he collected a pot of it during the next few days, went down to the beach with the ribbon, which I’d unspooled from the typewriter, soak it in the pot awhile, then take it out and spread it on the rocks by the back of the beach where the fishermen dried their nets. In the morning, I could put it back in the typewriter.

I wrote our final two months worth of work with this octopus-inked ribbon, and when we came by plane to New York in April and went through customs, the officials there opened one of my suitcases to find that something inside stank. It was my work. After some pleading—they discussed if octopus ink was allowed into the country or not, they finally, grudgingly, let me take it in.

Electric typewriters came out a few years after that. I tried using one once. You plugged it in and it hummed. You struck a key just a little way and it typed that key. Then, I think I said something like, “ummm,” and I swear it typed that word. Ummmm. This was too spooky. Also the humming made it hard to hear the voice in my head. I continued on with my manual typewriter.

Computers came into general use in the late 1980s. I loved the writing programs on them and of course I am writing this story with one today. It’s Microsoft Word, of course. Microsoft has cornered the market for writing programs. It enabled Bill Gates to accumulate over $88 billion dollars and then give away over $28 billion so far. He’s no fool. Easy come, easy go.

I love that I don’t need carbon paper, I love that I don’t have to use Wite-Out, I love that I can delete and edit on it, I love that it is two pounds rather than 20 pounds and I love that I can order a copy of it saved either on a little thumb drive (about the size of a pink pearl eraser) I’d stick in the USB port, or on another hard drive or up in the “cloud.” Everywhere you went, there it would be. Everybody look up at the sky.

Oh, and I love that I can write a story in an hour instead of three, edit it and streamline it til it’s fresh and I love that you can magically attach it to an e-mail and ship it off to somebody else to read.

There are some people who still use typewriters. They can’t change. And don’t want to. They like all the folderol, they write the whole thing a second time and then a third. Then they re-write. I’ve met a few of these people. I tell them about Spellcheck and synonyms. They don’t care.

I am sitting on a sofa in the Living Room of the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton writing this. Here. I’ll press a few buttons. Now the office has it. You want it too?

Why do they call this “word processing?” That’s the only thing I don’t like about it. For some reason, the words “word processing” remind me of washing clothes in a laundromat. That’s processing. What we writers do is choose which words we want to use from the millions of them in the dictionary and then we string them out in certain new ways. Call a word processor a word chooser. Or a wordsmith. That I’d like.

BACK TO Dan Rattiner's Stories