Left-Handed Thoughts

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Typewriters, Technology and Tom Hanks

The writer Gene Fowler supposedly said, “Writing is easy. All you do is put a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter and stare at it till beads of blood appear on your forehead.” I certainly cannot think of a more apt description of the writing process.

I have tried to follow Mr. Fowler’s directions above. I did, in fact, put a blank sheet of paper into a typewriter. A real typewriter. And did stare at it. But so far, the beads of blood have yet to make an appearance.

Yes, I often use a vintage mechanical typewriter. And I’m sure at this point more than a few people are asking, why on God’s green earth would I want to do that? Well, let me be self-indulgent and take you on a trip down a rabbit hole… a rabbit hole with Tom Hanks, yes, The Tom Hanks in it.

It all started with work. I was typing a fairly long, complicated report. Using a word processor on a laptop, of course. And I was making a disaster of it. Every other line became a mass of festering typos. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought I was trying to wear out the backspace and delete keys on the machine. Finally, getting just a little bit peeved, I said to myself, “I used to be a better typist than this!”

We probably have all been there, at least anyone who has had to do any type of work at a keyboard. But, me being me, it made me stop and consider. Just when had I been better? I mean, as far as I could remember, I had always had five thumbs. But, there was a time, say, back about high school… back when I was using a typewriter…

And, yeah, I did use a typewriter. A lot. I had an old Brother electric model that I used to bash out papers, homework and an endless array of bad science fiction and horror story knockoffs. I would spend many an evening doing nothing but wasting page after page, creating fantasy worlds that no one would ever see. It’s what you do when you are a socially inept nerd, you see.

So, there I was, sitting in the 21st Century and thinking about my days using an obsolete piece of 20th Century technology. And what does one do when one’s mind seeks to wander in this day and age? Why go on the Internet, of course. Let the almighty Google come to my rescue. And from there, it was down the rabbit hole.

To my surprise, I started to find that there was a widespread interest in old typewriters. As I read further, I came across a particular article by (of all people) the actor Tom Hanks, in which he talked jokingly about his love of collecting typewriters. And, the rabbit hole suddenly got deeper. Because now I started thinking, ‘wonder if I could find an old typewriter?’

The answer was, initially, no. I searched everywhere. Every antique shop. Some junk shops. Even a pawn shop or two. Nothing. Flummoxed, I again turned to the great master Internet, and sent a message to a friend. Do you know anyone who might have an old typewriter they want to part with? And, to my surprise, my friend said yes. SHE just happened to have one.

And that is where I got my first “vintage” typewriter. And that is where the rabbit hole suddenly became bottomless. Because, the minute I laid hands on that 1947 Remington Noiseless Model 7, I couldn’t get enough. I had to find out more. And that just got me to picking up more old typewriters.

There’s a whole community online that indulges in this mechanical madness. It even has a name, the “Typosphere”, and it has all the usual stuff. Reference works (just like you would see for glassware and postcards), and collector’s sites (like the wonderfully illustrated “Machines of Loving Grace”). Want to know how to repair your machine, or find out how old it is? Visit the Right Reverend Munk’s “To Type, to Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth…”, where he’ll sell you a repair manual, and direct you to his enormous “Typewriter Database”. Hit YouTube, and find the quirky humor of “Typewriter Justice” showing off his wares, amongst others.

There’s even a bible of sorts, entitled The Typewriter Revolution, by Richard Polt. The good Professor Polt wrote a manifesto (yes, a manifesto) on the typewriter insurgency. It’s a movement, folks. A real movement. With its tongue firmly shoved into its cheek.

I happily went into that rabbit hole. I started keeping journal notes with my machines. I found browsing photographs of my favorite authors sitting in front of their favorite machines. Tennessee Williams, wreathed in cigarette smoke behind his Olivetti, a disheveled Anthony Burgess at his Olympia. Sometimes, this had a bad influence. Seeing a photo of Patricia Highsmith at her Olympia SM-3 ended up with me having an identical machine sitting on my desk. And there was Larry MCMurty’s thanking his Hermes 3000 at the Golden Globes, which of course led to one of those being tucked in my room. Stuff happens…

But, why? Why use these antiques? Aren’t they a pain? Aren’t they noisy and messy and slow? They don’t have spell check, and you can’t even check your email and… Aren’t you just some sort of hipster or show off, or…?

Well, yes. Yes, to everything there. Typewriters are relics. Functional relics, but relics, nonetheless. They are expensive in this day and age. They are obsolete. And they are slowly disappearing. They aren’t making them anymore.  At least, not good ones.

But I like them. They do one thing, and they do it well. They put words on paper. There’s a joke among typewriter users online which goes like this, Question: Why do you use a typewriter? Answer: Because it doesn’t have Facebook. And that points to the main reason I use a typewriter. It is a machine which still forces us to have a direct connection to the here and now. A human connection.

One of the first things I did with my “new” old Remington was to type a joking letter to Tom Hanks. In it, I informed him that my predicament was all his fault. It was his article that sent me down this rabbit hole. And then, like a damn fool fanboy, I sent the letter off.

To my surprise, he wrote back. A nice, humorous message, typed on (he informed me) a vintage Smith-Corona Sterling typewriter, with typos typed over and such. Not a photocopy, or something his secretary had printed out for him to sign. You could feel the impressions of the type on the page. It was an actual letter that one person had physically sat down and taken the time to create. Just a bit of a connection from person to person. A bit of being human. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, I know. But…

The letter from Hanks written on an old-fashioned typewriter

Blaine Jack is a life-long resident of Buckhannon, and a graduate of B-UHS and WVWC.  He is fascinated by history, technology, and all the usual oddball stuff.