Last week I met up with a friend at Local Edition, one of many hip theme bars to open in San Francisco lately. The drinks and decor pay tribute to old timey newspapers and post-war prosperity: I sipped an Ava Gardner while admiring what were either original or very good reproductions of 1950s news and advertising spreads framed on the walls and set into glass display cases that double as cocktail tables. But the bar’s extensive collection of cool vintage typewriters was hands down my favorite part. I’ve long loved the aesthetic of old typewriters, and if I were the collecting type, my shelves would be lined with them.
As much as I like to look at them, I have never actually used a manual typewriter. Starting in the third grade, I wrote stories by hand into wide ruled notebooks*. Somewhere around my thirteenth birthday, I went from ballpoint pens and lined paper to an electric typewriter, a gift from my dad. I remember the thrill of seeing how much more professional my stories looked in those perfectly formed and spaced letters. But it wasn’t long before my fingers were too fast for the keys to keep up, so that sometimes letters were missed or struck twice. And then there was the disappointing realization that editing meant retyping the whole damn page over again.
While other teenagers begged for Nintendos and CD players, what I longed for more than anything was a word processor. I’d never used one in real life, but from what I’d seen on TV, I was certain that a word processor was just what I needed to become a critically acclaimed novelist by the age of 21.
When I was fifteen, my dad came through again and bought me a Brother word processor. It was large and clunky, had a tiny screen, and no memory to speak of – all documents had to be saved onto floppy disks – but I was elated. At last, I had the proper tools to really write.
And write I did, sometimes going all night and until the sun came up. I was drunk with the freedom to edit at will, to print out multiple copies with the push of a button (although each page took 2-3 minutes to print). I had that word processor throughout most of college, and then replaced it with a newer model with a larger screen but still reliant on floppy disks. And I continued to write, until the day I accidentally wrote over my floppy disk. I lost the first three chapters of what was supposed to be my debut novel. Technology had turned against me.
But I couldn’t go back to either the pen or the typewriter. I’d been ruined for such pedestrian tools. To this day, while I always carry a small notebook for moments of inspiration, I can think a lot faster than I can write by hand and typically default to the Notes app on my iPhone. If nothing else, I have at least learned to employ multiple back up systems for both my phone and my laptop.
So what is the root cause of my romantic association with vintage typewriters? They conjure up images of the writer who lives hard and full, and then stays up all night writing about it, tie off and cigarette dangling from his mouth. Or of well-coifed secretary-by-day, novelist-by-night women writers who take the world by storm with their immense talent and wit, often overshadowing their male contemporaries.
While I am no longer a night owl, and taking smoking back up sounds as unappealing as joining the secretarial pool, the common theme here is passion: these writers had something to say, dammit, and they were going to say it, even if it meant they had to retype it 100 times. And that’s dedication.
*I would like to claim that this is why I had such good penmanship by high school, but I’m pretty certain it was actually the result of habitually writing out my favorite song lyrics during class, and forging notes.