The Sensual Typewriter

rem-typI remember my first typewriter well. It was a pale grey Remington and it weighed approximately half a ton. While theoretically portable, it was impossible to carry the damn thing from one room to the next without risking a double hernia. It was so heavy that I was under strict instructions from my parents to use it only in conjunction with a thick felt mat, for fear its industrial undercarriage would carve deep grooves into the table. I don’t remember exactly what model it was, but I found the photo opposite at Magic Margin – a blog dedicated to these antiquated writing machines – and it’s at least a kissing cousin to my old faithful.

The typewriter came from a second-hand shop and was intended to serve the whole family. As a gadget-mad teenager with a head full of stories, I quickly claimed it as my own. The stories I wrote on that old Remington were crude and derivative, but they were MINE. Even better, they’d been composed to the soundtrack every writer of my generation remembers: the clatter of heavy metal keys striking a curl of paper through an ink-soaked fabric ribbon.

Soon I was an expert at operating the machine, though I never learned to touch-type. Even now I, as I tap lightly away on my laptop, I continue to practise all the bad habits I developed during those formative years. My index and middle fingers know more or less where they belong, and my thumbs strike obediently at the spacebar when instructed, but as for my ring and little fingers … I’m afraid they’re just idiot bystanders.

The nostalgic tone of this post might lead you to believe I hanker after the old days. Well, I don’t. I much prefer the digital writing tools I use now to the clunky old hardware of old. I can save new drafts, restore old ones, copy and paste to my heart’s content. I can use cloud-based applications to access my work-in-progress on the hoof, using a laptop or tablet, or even (at a pinch) a smartphone. I find Evernote particularly useful for my blogging activities: I use it as a mobile store of notes and ideas, any one of which I can expand into a full-blown article whenever I like, and wherever I am.

And my fingers don’t throb like they used to.

All the same, I do sometimes think about buying an old typewriter and setting it up in a corner somewhere. Writing isn’t just an activity of the brain: it’s a sensual experience. The theory of kinesthetic learning tells us that the human brain works very differently depending on how the body’s various senses are being stimulated. For example, people with dyslexia are often able to access the alphabet more effectively by manipulating magnetic letters on a board, rather than writing with pen and paper; the tactile experience taps into the brain in a different way.

Similarly, the writing experience is different according to what tools you use. Writing longhand feels different to using a typewriter, which feels different again to a computer keyboard. Digital tools add the dimension of instant and infinite editability, which alters your mindset yet further. Some people claim this makes you lazy. Others say it frees the imagination. I think it simply warps the playing field – only a little, but enough to change the shape of the words you put down.

Only one thing has held me back from investing in one of these antique writing machines: the clatter of the keys. Much as I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I remember that sound – and even though I know it’s yet another part of the sensual typewriter experience – I can’t deny the simply truth.

Typewriters are just too damn noisy.

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