Typing vs. Writing

November 23rd, 2009

In my basement gathering dust are the three typewriters that I used between 1968 and 2000. The newest one is a Panasonic R320 electronic typewriter, a high-maintenance gizmo acquired circa 1988, on which I typed some of the stories in THE GREEN SUIT. My favorite typewriter was my first, a pale green Smith-Corona portable manual that I used during high school and college and graduate school and also occasionally during the post-grad years, whenever the Olivetti electric crashed and burned. (The Olivetti, a sleek but not entirely reliable machine, sometimes emitted smoke while the motor ran and ran as it waited for me to type the next word. I was a medium-slow typist and an even slower thinker.) The Smith-Corona has a dent in the housing that surrounds the key basket, where I slugged it one night in frustration. I can’t remember exactly why I was frustrated, but if I had to guess, it probably had something to do with wishing I were one of the writers I admired instead of the writer I actually was.

In the fall of 2000, my publisher at the time, Algonquin, sent me to a book festival in Nashville. THE GREEN SUIT had just come out. The festival is called The Southern Festival of Books, and almost all the writers who were there in 2000 were Southerners (or Southerners living in exile in some godforsaken northern place). I was on a panel with William Gay and Clyde Edgerton, both of whom still lived in the South. Gay, a Tennessean, wrote about rural Southern life (and some of its more violent citizens) somewhat in the manner of Faulkner; his prose is rich and beautiful and full of dark humor. Edgerton, a North Carolinian, wrote comedies in a lighter vein. He also wrote music, and at one point during our panel session, he fulfilled an audience request–he had a large following, heavily female–and sang a song that he’d written for one of his novels. He brought the house down. When Edgerton was done, Gay, a quiet man, said to me, “Glad we don’t have to follow him.”

Among the questions we got from the audience was how each of us composed our work. By that time, I’d pretty much abandoned my electronic typewriter. So in answer to the question, I said that I used a computer, and that I found it liberating to be able to revise a story without having to retype the whole damn thing or mar a clean piece of paper with White-Out. I recall also saying that I’d found I censored myself less often on the computer, that I would allow myself to write sloppily some days in order to simply get from Point A to Point B, because on the computer it was easy to go back and edit drivel. Edgerton, a former Air Force pilot who gave the impression of having never slouched in his life, said that he wrote on a typewriter and that the best way to revise was to make yourself retype the whole damn thing. He suggested that I might want to reconsider my approach, that maybe I ended up with a lesser thing by not retyping the story from beginning to end over and over.

I had the feeling that Edgerton was trying to put me in my place, but what he said makes sense. If you are retyping a manuscript on a typewriter, you are forced to examine every sentence one more time, and fewer bad ones are likely to escape your eye. On a computer it’s easy enough to fix a clunky sentence, but if you don’t retype the pages surrounding that sentence, you will probably miss (in part because words on a screen don’t ever look bad) other sentences or even paragraphs or pages that could use some rethinking. It’s easy to cut yourself slack on the computer; the computer is a slacker’s paradise. It’s easy to persuade yourself that by making a bunch of minor changes on the screen, you’ve actually revised something. Computers enable superficial rather than deep revision.

One of the biggest downsides of computer technology and the Internet is that they have made people impatient, or more impatient than we might be if we were still using typewriters and rotary phones. So much in American culture now is about speed–speed being the virtual equivalent of money, not only the grease that greases the acquisition of it. (See the investment banking industry, for instance, where it is possible to make a few extra million dollars in a matter of seconds for no other reason than you happen to own the fastest software in the land.)

One of the effects on writing of the worship of speed is that it makes us ever more anxious, ever more quick to pull the trigger, every more quick to email that story off to a publication, and ever more slow to edit. It is often said that the commercial publishing houses no longer employ editors who do much editing, and though there are all sorts of reasons for this–one is that mainstream book publishing is mostly no longer about writing, it’s almost entirely about money–a minor reason is that the computer allows an editor to, literally, keep his hands off a manuscript. One result of this hands-off approach is that it seems to encourage some good writers to write bad, or badly bloated, books. In an age when publishing was a more methodical (indeed, snail-like) process, an editor would have asked a writer to revise his manuscript–or, to paraphrase Edgerton, to rewrite the whole damn thing–and the writer would have been thankful for the request.

All that being said, I don’t plan to get my Smith-Corona out of the basement. I’m not sure I could even find a ribbon for it anymore. Which brings to mind a conversation I recently had with the comic book writer Harvey Pekar. I asked him where I could find a needle for my turntable. (If you saw the movie AMERICAN SPLENDOR, in which Paul Giamatti plays Harvey, you will recall that Harvey collected LPs.) He said he knew of a store in Cleveland, where he has lived all of his life, which sells phonographic equipment. “You could get a needle there–if you ever happened to be in Cleveland.” He sort of laughed, as if he thought I probably wouldn’t ever be in Cleveland.

Both Harvey and I are basically brick-and-mortar-type people, and the thought of scouring the Internet for a typewriter ribbon or phonograph needle might not occur to either of us right away. I have a feeling it wouldn’t occur to Harvey, ever.

There is a typewriter repair shop in Madison where in years past I took my Panasonic for retooling or cleaning. The proprietor, who is not the model for Oliver Poole, the owner of The Typewriter Poole in THE TYPEWRITER SATYR, could probably, with his connections, get me a ribbon for my forty-year-old manual. But a ribbon for my typewriter is less of a priority than is a needle for my twenty-five-year-old Swedish-made turntable, on which I’d like to play some of the LPs that I collected prior to the CD revolution.

I’d like the option of being able to listen to one of those old LPs while writing (or revising) a story on my two-year-old iMac. Though I have my doubts that listening to music, whether it is delivered via LP or CD or by Rosanne Cash standing outside my window, would make me a better (or slower or more careful or more revision-prone) writer. How is it possible, really, to listen to Muddy Waters or Blossom Dearie or Charles Mingus or Rosanne Cash and also write a good (or better) sentence? I suppose there must be a few writers who are able to do this–I know that T.C. Boyle has written with a thousand decibels of The Blasters or whomever blasting in his ears–but I’m guessing that they are only half-hearing the music.

It is often said that what matters most in writing is the “how,” not the “what.” Another way of saying this is that what makes a book good or bad is the writer, not the subject. Something similar could be said about the computer-versus-typewriter issue: it’s how a writer uses one or the other that matters, not which of the two she uses. A computer may in fact enable sloppiness, but if you care about what you write, if you are honest with yourself about as much on the page (or screen) as it is possible to be honest about, if you can tamp down all the impatience and insecurity that American digital culture engenders, you can use a computer as if it were a typewriter–and also save paper, until it comes time to print the manuscript out, which you should do (reading it on paper lets you see it afresh) before letting go of the damn thing.

–Dwight Allen

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