Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ribbons and Ink

Today's Scribophile post:

The Christmas I was fourteen, my parents bought me an electric typewriter for Christmas. It was my second typewriter; the first was small, pink, and I had to turn a wheel to choose the letter I wished to type. The new electric typewriter was grey, had a cover, a full-sized keyboard, and a backspace that activated an erase tape.

My desire for a typewriter stemmed from those rare occasions when my father would take me with him to work, where I entered a scene straight out of Mad Men. He worked in a high rise building where all of the secretaries sat in cubicles outside the attorneys’ offices, clicking and clacking away at their electric typewriters as fast as Clark Kent. It was captivating white noise.

In only a couple of years, typewriters in the work place would go the way of the dodo bird, but at the time, only a few had computers in their homes. My mother still pulled out her manual typewriter to fill out forms and write letters.

I wrote two books and countless stories of unrequited adolescent love with that electric typewriter. I still have them filed away, somewhere. I spent hours holed up in my room, typing until my joints ached. I dragged my parents to the office supply store and shelled out babysitting money for new ribbons and paper. That typewriter may have been the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I became obsessed with getting the thoughts that percolated in my young brain out, noisily, into printed format. I loved the whole typing process: the whirr of the machine when I turned it on, the methodical inserting of the paper, turning the feed rolls, engaging the shift lock, hitting the carriage release, and of course, the noise of the type striking the paper, making perfect ink impressions that would occasionally smear if I hit return before they dried.

Eventually, my parents bought our first computer: an Atari. A primitive printer came soon after, and it was noisy, but without my typewriter’s pleasant demeanor. It sounded like an instrument of torture each time it eked out one piece of printed paper. While the typewriter clicked away complacently, the printer made a loud and unseemly racket.

A better computer came in time, and I was allowed to take the Atari with me to college. I gave the computer up quickly; my roommate had a newer model that could access something called the internet, plus a campus-wide electronic mail system. The Atari went back home and gathered dust. After college, I got married, and happily, the new husband came with a set of Cutco knives and a brand new Dell.

In the years we’ve been married, we’ve purchased newer models. We’ve gone from the old bulky grey monitor to a sleek, black, flat-screen monitor. We have, in what seems an unnecessary indulgence, two printers: a laser and an ink-jet. We share the computer. Hundreds of Word documents and pictures have been transferred from computer to computer over the years.

This Christmas, the husband got me a netbook- a nice sized netbook with nearly a full-sized keyboard, and a tough, kid-proof exterior. (It crashed about five hours after I opened it, and I am still waiting for a replacement.) When the new netbook finally comes, I will own my very first computer. With my own secret passwords. My own files. My own, well, everything. My excitement is palpable! It feels almost like the Christmas I got my typewriter, especially since I found a program online where I can download typewriter sounds for my keyboard called “Home Typist.” The website claims that “the program is useful for home typists. At every touch of the keyboard there is the new sound, which makes the process of typing more interesting, amuses and reduces stress and helps to produce rhythmic typing.”

Somehow, I don’t think it will be quite the same. Also, I don’t think the patrons at Starbucks would appreciate the noise. So, I’m left with my memories… and high speed internet access. Just the same, I feel incredibly lucky to have been around at the end of an era- an era when writers could be inspired by the musical cadence of an old-fashioned typewriter.


Michelle said...

I hope to see an update on how you like your netbook. My hubby had offered to change out my smartphone for one and I wasn't quite sure because that would mean access to my laptop would be gone. (I use my smartphone as a modem.)

I used those typewriters in my typing class in high school! We had two typing with desktops and one with the old type writers. I lucked up.

rwhaynes said...


Thank you for taking me back the the days when I took my manual typewriter (an almost portable unit in a lovely case)and my slide rule away with me to college. I fondly remember long nights of retyping the last 17 pages of a twenty page term paper because I decided (after I was supposedly finished) to add a paragraph on page 4...those were the days!

Dad said...

The Atari ST still works fine and you can borrow it again if you want, till you get the netbook to replace the one that didn't work.

Debbie said...


I learned how to type on a manual typewriter back in the "olden" days. I remember my first job when I had to learn how to type on a memory writer; I kept smashing the keys down and getting double letters and letters that weren's supposed to be there. I couldn't believe that a typewriter could type on its own. Those were the days!

Holly said...

@Michelle: We were finally reimbursed for the Netbook. My husband opted to buy me a refurbished laptop for the same price. It is a Lenovo, with a large screen, and is only two years old. The netbook was so light and portable but let's face it- with four kids it's not like I get to run to the coffee shop to do some writing anyway. We have had great luck with the website for used electronics. I highly recommend it.

@rwhaynes: Thanks for reading! Man, I take word processing programs on the computer for granted.

@dad: New laptop arrives Friday! I'm not sure what you're still doing with the Atari. Unless you pull it out to play Crystal Castles.

@debbie: I never even really learned how to type. I do it all wrong. But I do it all wrong- fast!