Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My First Typewriter

This is my first typewriter. My parents gave it to me when I was in my teens. It's a Smith-Corona portable. I have many memories of sitting crosslegged on my bed in my room, or at my desk, typing on this typewriter. It has a hardshell metal carrying case that it locks into. When I wrote on my bed, I set the typewriter on top of its case, which made it a comfortable height for typing. I wrote most of my school papers on this typewriter, from 8th grade through the end of college. I can see spots on the rollers and shell where I accidentally painted White-Out, that most essential liquid tool of revision and rewriting before the invention of digital cut-and-paste.

My sister had an identical typewriter, and so did my mother. They were all purchased at the same time. I have two of the three typewriters in my collection.

I am fascinated by old technology. I enjoy reading about the history of technology, which is also the history of ideas and innovation. We are a technical culture, and much of our self-esteem as a culture is bound up with our developed instrumentalities; as is much of our hubris. So I have small collections. meaningful to me if no one else, of older tech. I have my father's old stethoscope. I have about a dozen antique typewriters, including iconic Royal and Underwood montrosities; but my collection is mostly focused on vintage portables. I have a small collection of navigation tools, working reproductions, commemorating my grandfather's leaving Norway at age 14 to sail in the merchant marine; I have a couple of telescopes, a sextant, several unusual compasses, etc. I have photographed many items in my collections on more than one occasion, and they appear as elements in both my visionary artwork and my commercial illustration work.

I typed up most of my first poems on this typewriter, when I started writing poems in my teens. Doesn't every writer write poems in their teens? Other than a school unit in second grade wherein we were taught haiku and cinquain as forms, I don't think I wrote poetry at all, until I entered puberty. Aren't these early poems usually forgettable? Recently, going through my old papers in storage in the basement, I found several old journals I'd forgotten about, and a sheaf of poems typed on this very typewriter. One or two poem sets are pasted into a journal volume. Others are loose, in a folder, paperclipped together. I plan to photograph these early poems, as I am doing with many of my old documents, to preserve all such papers as part of our family history, but also to explore my own personal history. I am still in that period of re-discovering and re-assessing my own life's story, in the wake of my parents' deaths.

A few days ago was the second anniversary of my father's death. At the same time, I was moved to purchase at a thrift store, for the first time in several years, another vintage typewriter, an old Underwood portable, to add to my small collection. I've also been thinking about the interconnections between my typewriter, my poetry, my calligraphy and handwriting, my design and typography work, including my original type designs, and my computers. To the mix I can now add photography, video, and multimedia aspects. I am working towards some combination of all these modes, or an exploration of what's possible when all these modes merge, overlap, or combine.

Nowadays I often type my poems directly to the screen, on my laptop, when they come forward, ready to be captured. I still handwrite poems in journals, too, but mostly when I'm away from the daily technology; for example, when I'm traveling or camping. But I remember typing to the page, composing directly on this typewriter, in my teens. That was the probable beginning of my fascination with type, and with writing directly at the typewriter, and later the laptop. I know several poets who state they can only write by hand, not to the keys; only later do they transcribe to the typewriter or computer. They say they can't write to the screen, they have to start with handwriting. Apparently I've always been able to do both. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I've never felt limited to one or the other mode of writing; the words come when they come, and the medium I write them down in is not as essential as getting them down. I still handwrite a journal, as I said, mostly when I'm traveling, when the laptop isn't handy or available. I write fast and I write legibly, another legacy of being a trained calligrapher. It all ends up in the computer now, eventually.

Among those rediscovered journal papers I also found a handwritten journal I had made on my first trip to Wyoming, as a geology student. It contains occasional entries—again, I was never a daily diarist; I can think of few things less interesting—but also many drawings and sketches. Mostly doodles, done idly during downtime, appearing as often as one is moved.

What I get from this rediscovery, now, is a renewed awareness that many of my adult artistic themes and concerns were already present in my writing and art even when I was very young. I abandoned drawing in my early twenties, thinking I was no good at it. (I was unable to cease comparing myself to more accomplished artists, and thus developed almost no self-confidence.) I look back at these old drawings and they're more interesting than I recall; but I am also remembering who I was when I did them, an explorer, an experimenter, as I am still. I gave up drawing because I thought I was no good at it, and gave all my attention to my music-making. Nonetheless, this rediscovered journals give me evidence that I was a confirmed writer and artist much earlier in life than I have recently believed. I recall starting in college the first volume of the journal that I have kept continuously ever since; but now I know I started earlier than that, I just let it drop before picking it up again more seriously later on.

I have many memories of sitting on my bed, typing on this typewriter. I wrote some of my first poetry on this typewriter. I wrote some of my first erotic poetry on it, as well. I kept a journal even in my teens, but it was a small, limited project. It was mostly for thoughts, sketches, and poem drafts. It was never a diary, a daily record of events. When I was 16, I began a long homoerotic poem that I wrote off and on for almost twenty years; I would set it aside for awhile, then come back to it; eventually it reached over 2000 words, and I transcribed it into the computer, revising it and adding to it once more. The three longest poems I have ever written have been erotic poems. I remember writing poems in a clean hand, too, when no typewriter was available. I wrote an entire chapbook of poems while on my Fulbright year in Indonesia. I copied them out in a clean hand which I mailed home to my mother periodically. I only gathered them together into a book later on.

But my mother kept everything I had ever given her; every painting, every letter, every poem, every piece of music, every drawing. She collected all my young work, and saved it for me, to be rediscovered when we were clearing out the house after my parents had died. So I have this early record now. It's juvenilia, mostly. One or two themes I can see recurring and revisited more maturely in later years; but already present in that teenage work. I'm grateful to my mother, now, for saving all this stuff: not because it's any good, as art or writing, but because it tells me that she cared, she did understand and support my art-making, and she loved me. This has been good for me to learn, now, when I need such reminders that, maybe, after all, despite everything, it has been worthwhile.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have one overriding memory when it comes to my father's typewriter, an older-looking one than the one in your photos, and that is pain - pain in my hands and pain in my back. Christ, they were hard on the body those things.

When I got married the first time I didn't get a wedding ring. I got a typewriter instead, a manual one, but then I needed one since Dad's was no longer available and that lasted me about twelve years till I decided I needed an electric one. And of all the machines I have worked on that had the most satisfying feel. It really hammered the page.

Since I've moved onto computers I've never had a keyboard that I've liked. I've bought a few fancy ones but the build quality isn't up to much. I never learned to touch type (I use three fingers actually) but I've been typing now for so many years that even with my three I can get up to quite a decent speed when the mood takes me.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Good story.

I've become a touch typist since I've had laptops. My fingers remember where the keys are, mostly. Before that, I always had to watch the keyboard. I've always been a fast typist, though.

Working on my old typewriter I got pretty good with practice, but manual typewriters DID need lots of force. Especially relative to computer keyboards, some of which are almost too light a touch.

When I pulled out the old typewriters to do this, and type out a few things for fun, I have to say I mostly did three finger typing—because so much force is required, and I'm so out of practice, that I could really only use my strongest fingers to do it.

11:00 PM  
Blogger martinhoward said...


Your blog is very interesting.

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Please consider introducing my website to the readers of your blog. Thanks.

Martin Howard

1:38 PM  

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