Elegy for My Typewriter

Growing up in Western Australia in the 1960's, we sometimes heard tales of lone Japanese soldiers emerging unexpectedly from the jungles of Malaysia and Borneo, their uniforms in tatters, brandishing weapons long empty of bullets. They were astonished to learn that the war was no longer in progress.

Even more poignantly, a few years ago I heard of a tribesman in Africa who had just ‘invented’ steam power. Alas, James Watt had preceded him by some two hundred years.

I never imagined that I would one day be classed among these human anachronisms, washed up on the shores of Time. Yet I cannot deny that I am at odds with my century. The reason? I have just used the last ribbon of my Canon StarWriter 30, a small electric typewriter that I purchased secondhand for $125 a lifetime ago. In its corporate wisdom, Canon has discontinued these ribbons and, in the process, discontinued an entire way of life.

For a writer, the StarWriter 30 was a godsend. Quiet, compact, easy to use, it never got in the way of my thoughts. Its modest memory capacity compelled me to return to the same themes over and over and rework them. It never obtruded symbols, instructions, suggestions or advertisements. More importantly, it never crashed.

We had our minor skirmishes, of course, particularly over the differences between American and English spelling. It would beep politely to remind me that it was not responsible for my deviant spellings of ‘honour’, ‘fulfil’, ‘medallist’ and words of that ilk. At other times, we would chuckle over my many typographical errors which made every sentence look like an edict from a minor Baltic state. Together we guarded my secret that I only use two fingers to type anyway and cannot lift my eyes from the keys even for a moment without incurring a palaeographic disaster. Quite simply, the StarWriter forgave my inadequacies as a typist.

Above all, we shared the visceral joy of creating words on a page, watching them take incarnation – sometimes tentatively or, on golden days of inspiration, with a burst of confidence. Onwards they would tumble across the white surface, garbed in their humble courier 12-point font. This was not the unreal, flickering world of a screen, where words hover and then disappear as if in a dream, where everything seems insubstantial and, by extension, insignificant. This was the real world of black ink on white paper, producing manuscripts that could be bound and posted, not e-mailed and erased.

Even the pages that I crushed into a ball and threw into the wastepaper basket gave me a sense of satisfaction. They were not simply deleted at the press of a key; this was a physical engagement. It spurred me to try to perfect my expression; it gave space to my thoughts. And if there was a lull in the creative process, it was my lull, not the irritated waiting for some connection or other imposed by technology beyond my control. Since my mind was not in a state of constant partial distraction, I could immerse myself in the silence that is the source of all ideas and inspirations.

Ah, but those days are gone. Before me looms a future of laptops, notebooks, thinkpads and terminals. Or does it? Is it possible that somewhere, somehow, there are others like me who are willing to “stand against the wronging tide”?

I have recently come to learn that Olivetti offers a sturdy manual typewriter for around $199. As someone who has invested in many hundreds of typewriter ribbons over the years, the prospect of a return to reusable ribbons is strangely appealing. I fantasize about being the only person in New York who can still continue to write during a blackout.

There are, in addition, the simple electronic typewriters offered by Brother and Smith Corona, at prices in the range of $130. However, I am not sure I would welcome a return to the whirrings, cluckings and end-line bells of these daisy wheel models.

Then there is the huge Swintec 2640 electronic typewriter, with its massive width of 18.9 inches, and its minute 40-character liquid display, wherein one can supposedly summon a 112,000 character memory. It sells for $499 and is also available in a clear cabinet. Promotional literature for this model boasts that it is “perfect for use by inmates in correctional facilities. Hidden items can easily be seen through the clear glass cabinet, making it difficult for inmates to conceal contraband.” A photograph of a flick knife lying menacingly alongside the harmless Caps/Lock key completes the picture of a writer possessed by unknown demons.

All in all, none of them has the advantages of my StarWriter 30. So while I wait to make the unavoidable transition to the computer age, I have gone back to longhand and I console myself with thoughts of Emerson, Tagore and all the numerous writers of past times who somehow managed to write deathless prose and poetry before the advent of computers.

And in this mood of stubbornness, I draw inner strength from my meditation teacher, Sri Chinmoy, who has been saying for many years that computers take away some precious psychic quality of the heart. In one poem he writes,

“The stronger
The computer-mind,
The louder
The heart’s pitiful cries.”

In that belief, I shall enter the computer age reluctantly, and with many reservations.