Monday, February 12, 2007

Our Typewriters

Oh boy, Rhian's gonna like this one. I was googling around for this new interview with Stephen Dixon that she'd been telling me about, when I stumbled onto a frankly awesome site called They have a section featuring various writers and their typewriters, and there was Dixon, and his Hermes Standard.

I know that typewriter well, because I've been corresponding with Dixon for like a dozen years, and he still uses it. Every letter I've ever gotten from him is typed, usually on the back of an abandoned manuscript page with a big ballpoint X over the text. For years I actually did this myself, sending people letters on the back of manuscript pages, because Steve is the world's coolest man, and I wanted to be cool in the same way.

Anyway, seeing this site got me thinking about our typewriters, and I went around the house taking pictures of them. They're above. (I think I'm missing one; Rhian will tell me.) The first is a big old Underwood--if it was a piano, you'd call it an upright. I actually wrote the second draft of my novel On The Night Plain with it, since it was a forties novel, and I wanted to write it using forties technology. (My Underwood is actually a sixties machine, though.) There's a label above the platen telling you the name of the shop in Missoula, Montana where you can have it serviced. I doubt it's still there. Sadly, when I picked the Underwood up from the shelf in my writing shed where I keep it, a bunch of birdseed hulls fell out--mice have been living in it.

The next one, a Corona portable, I only ever wrote a couple of stories on--the first draft of the short story that eventually turned into Mailman was one of them. It looks great, because it's in a very sturdy case. Little moldy blooms are all over the outside of the case, though--I need to clean it.

Next is a Remington we got at a yard sale. It's only ever been a display piece--it's sitting next to me now, on the dining room bureau. It's called NOISELESS 8, a name I've been wanting to steal for a rock band for years now.

Finally, there next to my knee, is our Selectric--I think the only thing I ever used it for was applying to grad school, but Rhian wrote on it a lot, and I think her ex-boyfriend did too. Or maybe that was a different one--at some point we had a few of them, sold the crappiest ones, and used the money to have the nicest one fixed up. At any rate, Selectrics were, and are, fabulous typewriters--that hum was like the sound of thinking.

The thing is, I started writing seriously on word processors. First, in college, on my roommate's first-generation Macintosh, then on a Brother word processor, the first I ever bought myself. I later switched to writing on Rhian's first PC, and then bought an impossibly heavy laptop. I now write on the HP Pavilion I'm using right now (on OpenOffice, of course, since I'm an open-source geek), or at my computer in my office at work.

I thought the experience of writing on a computer would result in drastically different fiction from writing with a typewriter. And while On The Night Plain is indeed different from my other novels, so are all my other novels. So I don't think it's the technology. But man those machines are beautiful. Someday, when the kids head off to college with all of our dough, I'll take them apart and put them back together, and keep them well oiled forever. But for now, the mice are in no danger of eviction.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I have an Underwood 319. It's in fine shape -

I've got a link to the Dixon interview at my site, if you're still looking for it. It's a good interview. How great that you've been able to correspond with him over the years - I'll bet he's good with the letter-writing, quantity and quality -

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's it, thanks matthew! Dixon remains among my favorite writers...his giant selected stories is some kind of awesome miracle. And he is a wonderful guy, kind to young writers. When Rhian and I were publishing a little mag, back in the day, in Missoula, he was one of the only "real" writers to respond to our query. (The others were Heather McHugh and Charles Simic.)

rmellis said...

Yes, you forgot two of them: my little white portable Brother, which I've had since high school, and another Corona that I found at a yard sale and bought because I felt sorry for it.

At 38 I might be one of the last people to have learned to type on a typewriter rather than a word processor. I took a class in high school called "Typing," in a room full of Selectrics. It was taught by a crazy man who always wore a suit and tie. I also took classes in "Sewing" and "Cooking," though the latter obviously didn't take.

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