Thursday, April 22, 2010

DING-ZING-THWACK, the sweetest song

A year ago I came across a typewriter on ebay. A whopping $10, plus $10 shipping. I thought, "How cute! I'll use it to write my great American novel!"

It came in the mail a week later. I immediately started pounding away on the old keys, the THWACK of each keystroke felt like I was using some brand new power that only I could possess. The power, unfortunately, didn't extend to making words appear on the paper - the dry ribbon was my Kryptonite.

I went to a local shop had ribbons cheap and typewriter advice even cheaper. I bought two ribbons, so great and sure was my dream to write my best-selling novel that I figured I'd need two ribbons, maybe one for the original and one for the editing. After all, the box wasn't that much smaller than the box most Inkjet cartridges come in, so it must be good for a few thousand pages, right?

I came home and, fool that I am, whipped the old cartridge off the machine and threaded the new one in. I didn't take a picture of how it was supposed to go, and had no idea, and in fact didn't even really glance at the set-up before I took the old reel off. It was two hours and six Google searches before I got it back the way it should be, or at least close to it. It still fights me on some letters, and double-taps others until at the end of a page it looks more like the crazed manifesto of a violent lunatic than a simple short story.

After a few days of sporadically typing away on the old machine the novelty wore off. I put it back in its case and stored away where it gathered dust and cobwebs for the better part of a year.

For a few weeks in the following year I was desperately trying to write something - anything - that would pay my bills and put food on the table and maybe afford me the opportunity to go out with my friends once in a while.

Typing on the computer held so many distractions - email buzzing, Facebook and Twitter and all kinds of other super-connected crap was going off all the time. I just wanted everyone to shut up a minute and let me finish my thoughts, but every time I tried to disconnect my computer, it resulted in endless "network error" pop-up messages. Hissing at the computer, "Yes, I know. I unplugged it! Shut up and go away!" as I jabbed at the little yellow error box was more than enough to make me lose my train of thought.

And even when the connectivity (or lack thereof) problems were at a minimum, there was the problem of the writing itself. I am a lazy typist. I leave my wrists on the desktop, inviting Carpel Tunnel syndrome to my wrists and endless fatfingered typos to my writing. If something is misspelled, I immediately fix it just to make the little squiggly line go away.

This instant editing issue doesn't just apply to typos but to poorly developed paragraphs, sentences that didn't carry the subtle nuance and sly wit that will get any editor anywhere desperate to publish anything you ever write, ever, right down to your grocery list.

And so you go back and fix it. And fixate on it. And delete and backspace and cut and paste and undo for an hour. And then you realize you've spent an hour writing one stupid sentence while the endless, heartless blank pages of your word processing program stretch on without any concept of "end."

Suddenly you realize that you could write a thousand pages - a million - and it would never be enough for this program. You will always be either one third or two-thirds of the way down the page. The beginning and end were melded seamlessly into the middle and it all runs together in one pristine, white window on your screen.

I was talking with a friend of mine about the problems of writing on the computer. She said something along the lines of getting a typewriter. I took a sip of my rum and coke and nodded. Typewriter. Sure. Spoken by someone who obviously didn't know what a hassle it was to type and edit on a machine, and how much White-Out costs. Whatever.

That night, full of rum and vigor and questionable tacos, the typewriter was the best idea in the world. And of course it was my idea - always had been, always would be. Sure enough, after pulling the plastic case out of hiding and setting up on the dining room table, the old giddiness came back as my fingers danced across the keys. Danced is probably the wrong word.

The keys had to move a few inches to meet the page so holding the classic home keys position was out of the question. My wrists no longer sat idly on the desk. I had to use force to put words to paper as my fingers bounced around the keyboard. I imagined myself a great piano player, knocking out one of Rachmaninoff's trickier Opuses. Things were really on a roll.

The force of my typing ignited the force of my progress. Going back to fix a typo or re-write a line was out of the question. White-out took too long to dry. Correction tape stuck to the letters and left the offending, unwanted type exposed and helpless on the page. So, I barreled on. Re-typing the word with the correct spelling got to be cumbersome and time-consuming, so typos littered each page like a swarm of locusts. (Or locsts, according to the typewriter.)

It wasn't just unedited typos. Sentences that hadn't ended up the way I expected went unchecked. And before I knew it, I was at the end of one page - two pages, three; my progress was finally tangible. The DING-ZING that separated each line of type was like a miniature cheer squad: "DING! You just finished a line! Try another! ZING! Way to go!" The cheers faded into the background as the manual line advancement became second nature and I found myself at the bottom of the page with little nor no memory of the thirty DING-ZINGs that had gotten me there.

Was there anything in life more satisfying? Something more than maniacal pounding of the keys, my own DING-ZING cheer squad, and a pile of proof that I was moving forward and making progress? Well, sure, the world is a big place full of awesome things. But at two in the morning, very few things compare to that THWACK-tastic concert on my dining room table.

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