An old poetry professor of mine once asked my class, “Where do you write? How do you write your poems? On a computer or by hand?” If we change the tools we use to write, he said, we can refresh our imaginations and find new connections that we wouldn’t come across otherwise. His assignment that day was to go write a poem by an unfamiliar method. If you wrote by hand, try typing it. If you always use a computer, go write a poem on a chalkboard. Find a typewriter.
The assignment, at least for me, proved him right. Writing a poem on a chalkboard produced strange poetry. Changing the medium changed the way I was thinking as wrote. It actually made it mentally strenuous.
I tell this story as a roundabout way of thinking about writing on typewriters. For me, sitting at a typewriter, punching keys, trying to produce something has always forced me to be more patient, more present. It’s a complete change to my writing tempo. On a computer (as I write this blog now), I can be swift, agile. Writing almost directly with my interior monologue. I feel like a stenographer.
The typewriter, on the other hand, halts me at every turn.
I’m very much aware of the mechanism of the typewriter. The keys have weight. The sound of it. The ding, the clank. The computer (when it is operating smoothly) seems to try make itself invisible. I don’t think about the keys I’m pressing. It’s incredibly quiet. Everything feels seamless—my thoughts and the language seem interconnected. But this is a myth, no? Just because I’m not thinking about the mechanism doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And just because I can write faster, racing right behind my thoughts, doesn’t mean my writing is any better, any closer to me. I’m not necessarily thinking through everything I have to say—I’m just spewing thoughts on that first draft.
On the Smith-Corona, if I have a sentence I want to write, I peck at it, letter by letter. By the time I get it on the page, it has somehow changed, evolved. It’s no longer the sentence I had in my head. Either I’ve forgotten the initial wording or halfway through I’ve doubted myself and changed it even before ink meets the paper.
There’s a finality, a weight to the typewritten manuscript. Part this must be with the pressure involved in punching a key down. Even though I can make changes in post, so to speak, I’m aware of the effort involved in retyping. As a sometime-perfectionist, it can be both liberating and infuriating knowing that what’s on the page is stuck on that page. But having the text there, unable to erase and tweak it at will, provides relief. That page becomes a record of your successes and failures. My typewriter poems all have lines I regret. My computer poems have no back catalogue of bad lines. They’re erased or in stuck in the data somewhere.
Drafts are inevitable with the typewriter. To fix it, I have to rewrite the poem. In Word, I save no drafts. Everything is at its most recent stage. What’s lost is lost.
So you must be patient and must think through your decisions on a typewriter. As a line comes to me, I have to question it. Is it the line? Should it be recorded or can it be lost in my memory? You type, thinking you have it right, and a letter locks up. You have to physically reach in and pull the key back up to continue.
But when I come to the end of a poem, it feels done. I can walk away, relax. On the computer I’m faced with the possibility of infinite changes. The work is never quite complete.
Here’s the poem I wrote on the typewriter today, regretful lines and all.
Stray thought: Would the internet contain as much vitriol if people had to use typewriters? Would they desist when presented with the effort and time involved? Or would we simply have vitriol that’s more patient and thought-through?