I wrote a letter to my brother this summer. He was about to start high school and encounter the inevitable hurdles I had faced at his age; so, reluctantly acknowledging my youngest sibling was growing up, I felt compelled to offer him a bit of advice. Instead of holing up in my favorite coffee shop or lounging poolside to compose my letter, I sat down at the kitchen table in front of my 1931 Smith-Corona typewriter. It didn’t take more than a few carriage returns for me to realize there was no better vehicle to express my sentiments than the one sitting before me, for only typewriters are capable of delivering the passions, grievances, histories nearest and dearest to our hearts.
My typewriter is black, sleek, shiny and smells of musty closets and old papers. I’ve written exactly 13 letters and 4 thank you notes on it in the few months I’ve owned it and the completion of each project always prompts me to begin another. It’s the first thing I packed for my return to school and it breaks my heart to store it in its worn leather case, out of sight but never out of mind. As soon as my fingers touch the keys it’s like our separate bodies are magnetically connected, effortlessly becoming one. My fingers fit perfectly into the subtly concave buttons and assuming this position is like donning a well-worn glove. It’s comfortable; it’s natural; it’s magic. In this moment I’ve discovered that typewriters are simultaneously an extension and reflection of our humanity.
A typewriter’s prominent anchor of a space bar replicates the momentary suspension humans crave in the chaos of everyday life—a pensive pause, a break in the clatter and chatter to catch our breath, consider the next word, the next course of action. We sometimes rush ourselves, refusing that brief suspension and we get jammed; we choke. For a moment, we are helpless and it takes time and a little patience to right ourselves before resuming our respective conversations.
The deliberate movements of the typewriter and its operator are perhaps the most endearing feature of this method of communication. On these machines we cannot simply begin writing whenever and wherever we please; typewriters beg for conscientious positioning and alignment before we even begin to touch the keys—not to mention locating a large, flat surface on which to rest the machine. It’s not only the articulation of an idea on a typewriter that requires effort, but also the preparation to articulate it, forcing the machine and its user into an unconventionally beautiful choreography of slides and rolls and balanced adjustments. To operate a typewriter is laborious, but it’s a labor of love.
Humans were made for the physicality of the “hunt-and-peck” typing technique that only the typewriter encourages. Writing in this manner requires strength, power, poise, and determination to pound out one’s messages; the call for physical interaction with the keyboard of a typewriter is intimate in ways no laptop or ballpoint pen can mimic. This practice requires patience, a slowing down of one’s thoughts and actions in order to assemble the perfect word from a random array of isolated letters. Looping, scrawling, handwriting may be beautiful, but where is the effort, the indication of labor, of meticulous construction? Where does l-o-v-e start and end when the word itself is a blur of graphite? Where are the t-h-a-n-k and the y-o-u in a block of text limited to a handful of characters and produced in a matter of seconds? Typewriters reflect our devotion to written content from beginning to end. Betrayal by one’s own words is inconceivable because mass editing doesn’t exist in the world of typewriters. You are what you are on paper.
Deleting is not an option. It’s impossible to completely obscure one’s mistakes, be they grammatical or otherwise, because typewriters don’t allow you to pretend to be perfect. “Embrace your faults!” they seem to cry every time you skip a word or add an extra “m” to grammatical. “Slather on some White-Out and try again.” White smudges and bumps add character to your craft and your craft is beautiful.
In the 21st century, typewriters don’t produce emails or meeting reminders; they’re not used for submitting assignments or jotting down notes. They are for love letters, for “I’m thinking of you” and “I’m sorry” and “We used to.” They are 16 pounds of “You’re on my mind” and a thousand cylinder rotations of “This is why.” They are one font, take-it-or-leave-it, what you see is what you get. They are not deceitful. They are familiar to grandparents and fascinating to friends. They are never confiscated by angry parents.
They are for power outages and areas with no cellular reception. They are for noisy cafés and silent bedrooms. They are for poets, for artists, for lonely mothers and lovesick teenagers. They are the click-clack-click-clack that matches your heartbeat in the way no top-40 song can do.
Typewriters are loyal.
And typewriters remind correspondents they are not forgotten. We may be rusty, dented, scratched and stained, but we’re worth being picked up, dusted off, and spoken to. We deserve polishing and sometimes we need a new ribbon, but we’re capable of loving and being loved in return.
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