Saturday, October 17, 2009

Typewriters: the fates and fingers of authors

Oh Olivetti! My Olivetti. I am sure this is it. My first typewriter. I just found it on and this is what they say about it: A worldwide favorite of students, its also the perfect portable for everyone from poets to PTA secretaries. Yes, poets. That was me - tapping poems on those keys with the small dip for a finger tip, just so, and each key pressing a metal arm with two small metal letters on the end [lower case and upper case], or a question mark or colon or quotation mark, and each tap would push that letter or mark into the paper, and leave a small shapely dent. 

Then there was the ower of the 'shift' - push it down and the whole of the key structure would lift like subjects before royalty to make a lower case letter a capital letter. At the end of each line, the lever had to be grabbed and pushed along so the black rubber paper roller [known as the carriage] pulled the page up and along to the start of the next line. Ch-ding. And sometimes the ribbon spool would stop feeding the ribbon through and I'd need to fiddle with a tiny clip to make it run again, sometimes I wouldn't notice and the metal letters would tap on the same spot long enough to cut right through it, or sometimes the ribbon would run dry of black or red ink and need replacing. And to correct mistakes, there was whiteout in bottles or on slips of paper which you put under the key before pressing the letter again.

[You know, I wonder if the second Olivetti is more like mine in fact - plainer, a little heavier?]

There's something about the act of typing, something expressive about it. The whole body wields the arms which push the hands which tap those finger tips, and it's like the fingers push and dig at the same time. They work to get those letters onto the paper. And the act of pushing the carriage along to get to the next line is like being a conductor of an orchestra with all the energy and showmanship it implies. I remember my father - his big hands tapping, his whole body throwing itself behind them, chucking that roller along at the end of a line with a loud and satisfying DING. My mother was more circumspect more compact about it, less ding-y, really.

I suppose the amazing thing is both my parents used typewriters as both of them are writers. The Olivetti was theirs. I inherited it. I tapped my early poems on it, and my student essays. Stories sometimes too. I loved it. It made my poems look like poems and my essays look tidy and formal. It helped make me a real writer.
For some reason, after university when I left NZ to live in England, I bought myself a new typewriter. Had the old one broken? Or did I just want something fancy and new and mine? I bought an Olympia. It's still in the garage in its case. Or I think it's an Olympia. I should just go and check, but it's late. It certainly looked very like this - but perhaps a little smaller and lighter? I like the blurb that goes with it: The writer's typewriter of the 70s. Ever since their introduction, Olympia SM 8 & 9 models have been very closely tied to the fates and fingers of authors and writers. They're dependable, comfortable to use, and nice and solid in feel and function. This machine is probably the most preferred writing tool for anyone prefers a manual and it sure will serve for many years to come.

'The fates and fingers of authors and writers', well who can argue with that? I've just found out on [which has a host of bios of typewriting authors] that Paul Auster got an Olympia in the 70s, not long before I got mine. This is him on the left. But back when I typed on my Olympia in our small London flat not too far from Primrose Hill, I didn't know Auster's work. Back then, I was like Sylvia Plath, angrily tapping angry stuff, enough to annoy the elderly Hungarian refugee downstairs. Except this was Plath's typewriter below [the actual one apparently]: a large, heavy Royal.

Nik, one of my writing students, bought himself a Royal this year - like Hemingway rather then Plath. In fact here, thanks to the power of the internet, is Hemingway's actual typewriter. 

It's been lovely reading typewritten work again. The way it's not absolutely perfect. The way you can see how the letters have found their place on the page, and without too much trouble you can imagine the noise and the orchestration behind them; and then it's no small leap to imagine the brain fitting those letters together to make the words. This is writing as a physical act, a theatrical, memorable act - my father throwing the carriage along so hard I suspected it might part with the typewriter one day, neighbours agitated with the angry clatter of my poems, and Auster - look at him - his fingers are fair twitching with expectation.


Anonymous said...

beautiful post Mary, love seeing all the typewriters - especially the famous ones. I never mastered typewriting as a kid, my fingers got stuck in the keys. But one of my fav. memories of childhood is my father typing up a story I had written when I was seven that was about 15 pages long. Apparently, I sat by him the whole time giving editorial suggestions as he tapped with his two fingers....

I hand wrote my University work, I doubt they would accept it now. The closest thing I ever came to a typewriter was an electronic one in the late nineties, before computers were suddenly everywhere....

Rachel Fenton said...

I still have my first - a white Olympia no less! Might post a pic of it one of these days! I remember sitting down to type my first words on it and imagining, much as i did when I sat at a piano for the first time, that I would gently lay my fingers upon the keys and great things would materialise at great speed! I ended up just tapping random letters to sound like I was achieving, it was harder to tell I was cheating on a typewriter than on a piano! Jeepers it made my finger bones zing though!

Thanks for reminding me of this :) said...

I started on an Imperial 66 (the equivalent of pushing a ton a day someone calculated and no-one ever got oos, as the angle of the hands was conducive to blood-flow). I learnt to touch type with a bib covering the keyboard and have caressed the qwerty keyboard on a portable Olivetti, a full-sized Corona, a quanit little Hermes, an IBM golfball and finally, one day a Triumph Adler Memory typewriter when I first started my recruitment company. Hubby said "You'll need a computer honey." And he was right... like about a year later.
My most shameful moments are working as a rookie shorthand typist struggling to contain seven carbon copies and trying to erase the many typing errors... my blouses (yes I wore those too back then) would be smudged black up the inside sleeve as I peeled back layer upon layer of carbon and paper... and my rubbish bin would be filled to overflowing as I abandoned seven copies and began again (slyly peeking to see if the Supervisor CPO at the back of the room, had noticed the amount of paper I was getting through) - sometimes I took the paper home in my handbag to avoid embarrassment.
We cleaned our typewriters on Fridays with special brushes and I ended up with more spare parts beside the typewriter than anyone else, due to my vigorous attention to detail...but my typewriter kept on going. Poems did you say Mary? Oh, no, not poems, but redundant memoranda between the man at the back of the office to the man at the front of the office to the man downstairs, to the main upstairs and back again, and then pay schedules, in the days before spreadsheets, when you had to type from pay cards, tabulate the columns and then cross your fingers (hmmm) that the columns all balanced... I was always glad I didn't work for a Law Office as those poor girls had to type documents without any errors, as erasures (let alone the use of Twink) were out of the question. Forests would have died en masse, if I had.

The carriage return action was extremeley satisfying, I will agree and I do know a story of a legal secretary in Christchurch many years ago,who threw her typewriter out of the window one day (true). Perhaps her poem wasn't going too well.

Mary McCallum said...

Great typing stories! Yours is a marvellous reminder of what a terrible bugger typewriters could be, Maggie. I do remember that as a journalist - the typing and re-typing and re-typing of a story so it could be read on air - instead of being able to press that fabulous little 'delete' button I can see on the top right of my keyboard now. I remember typing and re-typing poems, too, because I hated sending them off with obvious corrections [crosses over errors or the often gluggy white-out.] Although, I do think that in the end I made fewer changes to my work - essays included - because any changes more difficult to action.

And you're right - no OOS! Not just because of the angle of the keys but because when you hit those keys with your fingers, the whole arm and shoulder went too. I could type all day and it felt like a workout not a case for the physio!

I guess any nostalgic ramble involves a bit of remembering and a bit of forgetting, eh Maggie?

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, here's a photo of my first typewriter, again it was my father's before me. And the main feeling I associate with it is one of pain but then it doesn't really matter how I write, with a pen, and electric typewriter, a PC of a laptop, they all hurt if you keep it up long enough which I always do.

When I got married the first time rather than a wedding band I asked for a typewriter instead. Not sure of the make but it wasn't nearly as sturdy as the Olympia. said...

Oh heck - I had forgotten about the red and black ribbons - how could I forget - thank you for that - and yes, I had an Olympia too, but much more modern than yours, and if I recall the keys were white and beautifully moulded for the shape of finger tips, as opposed to some portables with round flat keys.
I just checked out the old Imperial 66 and hadn't realised, that when I started typing on it, it was indeed "modern" ...golly, it seemed ancient, even then. But I can see why it carried on going after I had virtually dismantled it in the cleaning process - it looks, practically indestructable. The Hermes portable I had was a "baby" size and like the modern-day version of a computer note-book I guess. No wonder I used to be smudged black from sleeve to sleeve - not only carbon copies, but changing the ribbons!
The closest I get to this now, is changing the paper in the eftpost machine in the bookshop (which way round does it go?), and the next biggest thrill since the cling-ding of the carriage return, is my magic book scanner that beeps and brings up the ISBN and price - so satisfying - and if I'm lucky the till pops open too, but if not, just like "Open All Hours" it will open of its own accord entirely at whim to surprise me.
Oh yes Mary, remembering and forgetting - my first ever "peformance appraisal" (before they were invented I think) was a quiet word from the Supervising Shorthand Typist about the smudges all over my final work (no, not the smudges on my clothes), but on the final copy of the memoranda.
Enough - it's only cause it's raining out, that I'm rattling on so long...

Beattie's Book Blog said...

Thanks Mary, super post, and great to see all those lovely typewriters. I only ever owned one, wish now I still had it. It was a Remington portable, came in a sturdy case although it did not get lugged around everywhere like my laptp does.

Unknown said...

Some of us have an equal affection for old electric typewriters with the rotating ball ... such an advance on the manual ones! (Though sometimes people threatened to throw them out the window; I can't remember why). This week I discovered that a friend collects fountain pens - he has over 300 of them, and his affection for his pens is on a par with the affection for old typewriters.