Friday, December 4, 2009

No Country for Old Typewriters

At the beginning of the week, a friend sent me an article about Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter; I can’t claim any originality for the title of this post, since I’m stealing it directly from The New York Times article:

McCarthy, author of spare and grim novels such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, used a single instrument—a portable Olivetti manual typewriter that he purchased in a Knoxville, Tennessee pawnshop in 1963—to write all of his novels across the past four decades. After years of faithful service, the typewriter has started to show signs of its age. A friend found McCarthy another typewriter exactly like it, and as such McCarthy has agreed to auction off this literary artifact.

Writers and their habits often shroud themselves in these auras of mystery, prestige, and the spare, lean voice of McCarthy’s dark novels certainly assist in evoking readers’ wonder. How does he so convincingly create the apocalyptic wastelands of The Road with his lean, toned sentences?

That old Olivetti is part of McCarthy’s process, as much as his politics and philosophy on literature are. Something easily overlooked in a writer’s craft is the matter of how a writer works. Different methods—longhand, typewriters, computers—produce different narratives, different ways of thinking about the writing process.

In the article I’ve linked to above, McCarthy notes that the antiquarian use of a typewriter baffles the younger generation. Why use this clunky, noisy, heavy thing when some laptops—my MacBook, for instance—weigh less than five pounds and have software integrating your machine with the boundless resources of the Internet, enabling searches for synonyms or research, allowing the instant movement of text blocks, and granting ways to share your thoughts immediately (as with this blog, novel idea, no?) with a few clicks of a button?

To keep my self-aggrandizing here brief, I share McCarthy’s love for the typewriter (at least for early drafts), and it’s a creative process that quirks quite a few eyebrows amongst my peers. But for those of you in my age bracket—between, say, seventeen to twenty-five—who have never used typewriters, I suggest that you ask your relatives if they still have one around. Grandparents, parents, aunts, or uncles. Write for two hours on the typewriter, manual or portable doesn’t particularly matter, and think about how you work differently. The typewriter requires a physical labor and force that computer keyboards don’t require, but with the typewriter, there’s also something undeniable: the music of the hammers striking against the platen roll, the sensation that the words and phrases are lifting up toward something as you type.

So there’s your assignment for the weekend. Find a typewriter. Give it a go. Let me know how it works out for you, and I’ll be back on Monday.


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