More than the romantic adventures and misadventures, more than any late night conversations about books and writing, more than anything read or said in the workshops, more than the arguments friendly and not so friendly at the bars after class, more than that day in class when, armed with a gift from Uncle Merlin just arrived in the mail, I jumped on the seminar table and, after declaring him a fugitive from intergalactic justice, zapped Ron Hansen with my brand-new toy ray gun which lit up red and yellow and made satisfyingly loud buzzing and humming noises, and then ran from the room shouting that the Federation had been avenged, and more even than any actual writing I did, my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop is defined in my memory by the image of my typewriter sitting in a circle of light on my makeshift desk in my bedroom in the house I shared with six other grad students on the street where Flannery O'Connor lived when she was at the Workshop forty years before. It’s eight or nine o’clock on a Friday night. I’ve just come upstairs with a cup of coffee or can of Pepsi, ready to spend the next three hours pounding away to earn the reward of catching up with friends at whatever watering hole they’d be watering at around midnight.
I loved that time. I loved that typewriter. It had been with me forever, my eighth grade graduation gift from Mom and Pop Mannion. The world was still very young then. PC’s were appearing on desktops all over the country and a few of my friends and classmates had them. Some of my friends made use of the University’s computer labs. But for the most part all the writing done in Iowa City was done on typewriters. We typed out our stories and our poems and our letters home and it’s a wonder all the windows in town didn’t rattle day and night from the vibration and noise.
I’m not nostalgic for typewriters. I was a slow and inexpert typist and I never had enough Liquid Paper on hand. Desktop computers and then laptops were godsends. But I still wish I had a working typewriter, just for the fun of it. Because they are fun to write on. They make noise. They encourage violence in art, like action painting. Using them made writing feel like real work. Mark Twain used a typewriter. Hemingway used a typewriter. Clark Kent used a typewriter.
And that answers a question I’ve long had.
If Tom Hanks and I met, would we be friends?
Yes. You bet. We would.
As long as we talked of nothing else but typewriters.
Remingtons from the 1930s go THICK THICK. Midcentury Royals sound like a voice repeating the word CHALK. CHALK. CHALK CHALK. Even the typewriters made for the dawning jet age (small enough to fit on the fold-down trays of the first 707s), like the Smith Corona Skyriter and the design masterpieces by Olivetti, go FITT FITT FITT like bullets from James Bond’s silenced Walther PPK. Composing on a Groma, exported to the West from a Communist country that no longer exists, is the sound of work, hard work. Close your eyes as you touch-type and you are a blacksmith shaping sentences hot out of the forge of your mind.
Try this experiment: on your laptop, type out the opening line of “Moby Dick” and it sounds like callmeishmael. Now do the same on a 1950s Olympia (need one? I’ve got a couple) and behold: CALL! ME! ISHMAEL! Use your iPad to make a to-do list and no one would even notice, not that anyone should. But type it on an old Triumph, Voss or Cole Steel and the world will know you have an agenda: LUGGAGE TAGS! EXTENSION CORDS! CALL EMMA!
You will need to make space for a typewriter and surrender the easy luxury of the DELETE key, but what you sacrifice in accuracy will be made up in panache. Don’t bother with correcting tape, white-out or erasable onionskin paper. There is no shame in type-overs or XXXXXXiing out a word so mistyped that spell-check could not decipher it. Such blemishes will become the personality of your typing equal to the legibility, or lack thereof, of your penmanship.
Read about Hanks’ love for typewriters and his collection of them in his op-ed for the New York Times, I am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That?