I remember delivering practice math problems to my mother, my feet sweating in pajamas, shuffling into her bedroom on the wood floor, to interrupt a flurried session on the typewriter, to show her that I could multiply and divide really large numbers.
My mother typed piles of reports for Mr. Stempel, a name that occupied our home like he loomed over us–like he’d observe us at the table when we ate my mother’s meatloaf dinner later. The clacking of keys striking paper and spool served as our soundtrack as kids. We knew nothing of what was written in the reports, never thought to ask or sneak a sentence off the thick, perfect stack of pages on my mother’s desk. He was Mister Stempel, an emphatic nod to the respect and deference my grandparents quietly passed on to our mother and her sister, my beautiful Aunt Barbara, as little girls in the 50s, as young women in the 60s. We never knew his first name.
Her occupation as our mother: typist. I was always proud of her for that (among other things, obviously) because she was so skilled at it. My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother. And now, as I hunt and peck a page or two a day of this book, this recollection, this disclosure–this complete and total exposure of the last decade of my life–I’m even prouder of what she could do between chasing us down to wash our hair in the kitchen sink and thumbing through the Sears catalog for fresh pairs of Toughskins the August before every school year. I still see her staring slightly off to the left at whatever Mr. Stempel gave her to type while her fingers transformed all of it into neat text on the page, her bifocals down to the button tip of her nose. What was Mr. Stempel’s first name?
The typewriter for me today, a month before I turn 50, is a revelation, a gift from a lifelong friend on the event of yet another tectonic shift on my personal planet. The typewriter has been a chance for me to discover why I love to pour my thoughts onto the page so much. The typewriter has been a place to err on the side of indiscretion, throw contemplation into the atmosphere with the hopes that a sentence or two may stay airborne long enough to attach itself to another. Or maybe I don’t hope or care at all. I just love to write.
My mother’s errorless hands played thousands of words onto paper so mine could run headlong toward some kind of elusive truth about myself. Her hands turned Mr. Stempel’s handwritten notes into money, baked Irish soda bread, steered the Caprice to Maple Avenue in Seaford where she’d correct me whenever I got the country music lyrics wrong. My mother’s hands pointed us in the direction she thought was the proper way. My hands grope in the pitch dark along the wood paneled wall for a truth I should have alighted upon a long fucking time ago.
There’s something I really want to get at about typing, though. I’ve been trying to approximate the feeling, or equate the feeling to something I can pass on to you. Typing on a Google Doc right now serves its purpose. I am putting words down, but I’m also revising as I write, and I’m doing this on the first draft of the essay. I stop often and read the sentences, I move them around, delete and replace a word.
I talked about how great these features are for students last week, and I still believe it. The ability to move text wherever you want on a document, at any time, is an incredible advancement in not only technology, but in documenting human thought. If I didn’t have the ability to move type, I would have misplaced the sentence “My brothers and I never imagined there was a better typist in the world than our mother” in paragraph three. Originally it sat, unconnected, four lines after where it is now. If I would have written this essay in high school in a blue book, I would have been marked down for misplacing it, but really, I would have written the sentences in the order they came to my mind. If a student has the patience to revise, they certainly have tools that I did not have at their age.
Ah, but typing. Walking through the door and taking the dishcloth dustcover off the Royal, feeding it a fresh white sheet of paper, and picking up where I left off the day before has been an exhilaration. I make terrible mistakes on the typewriter, but something propels me forward, forces my hand to type the next word, no matter what it is. Sometimes I don’t even finish words. I get to the end of a line–get too greedy after the ding–and I’ll have to either finish the word on the next line, or not. I can write it in later when I reread the pages. It’s the chatter of the typewriter, the snare drum tat of the keys, that urge a rhythm inside me that I don’t want to stop. It’s like my mind has generated a kind of electricity, and suddenly I’m a child and I’m running down a steep grassy hill, and I can’t stop myself but I’m not afraid to fall.
Jack Kerouac wrote about this sensation, or his version of it, in the fall of 1953. Kerouac had just finished writing a book called The Subterraneans, a manuscript that took him three nights of continuous typing to create. Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs asked Kerouac how he managed to do it. In response, Kerouac wrote “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” a nine-section essay on, basically, how others could engender the exhilaration and creativity within themselves. In the section titled “Procedure”:
When I’m on the laptop, I’m sketching language and blowing and all that, but it’s certainly not undisturbed when I’m getting notifications, email, and text messages. When Jimmy gifted me this beautiful machine, this was exactly what he had in mind. He knew the value of getting me offline.
In Kerouac’s section called “Scoping,” he writes
When Truman Capote made his famous remarks dismissing Kerouac’s writing in 1959 (“That’s not writing; that’s typing.”), he missed the point of what Kerouac hoped to achieve through these methods. Capote dismissed it as “styleless style,” and many scholars have dismissed Kerouac’s writing, but “Scoping” tells me Kerouac was on to something. “Satisfy yourself first,” he says, which doesn’t sound stylistic to me. It sounds like a writer who was unhappy with convention and needed to be happy while he wrote.
And while this Capote/Kerouac confrontation is the one that has endured sixty years later, Capote actually said this about a lot of writers of the time. In a 1957 (the year Kerouac released On the Road) interview with The Paris Review, Capote levied the moniker “Styleless Stylist” and “Typist” rather than “Writer” to Graham Greene, John Hersey, Flannery O’Connor, Thornton Wilder, Willa Cather, and J.D. Salinger, among others. Capote said “Only they’re not writers; they’re typists. Sweaty typists blacking up pounds of bond paper with formless, eyeless, earless messages.”
William S. Burroughs must have seen something he liked in Kerouac’s method because nine years after Kerouac’s essay he published Naked Lunch.
The last section of “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” is titled “Mental State”:
Sexual imagery aside, this is what I’ve been doing: writing “excitedly, swiftly…” on the typewriter all the time. I achieve this once in a while on the laptop, and maybe the typewriter is conditioning me to be able to do it on the laptop more consistently, but there’s something about pounding away at the keys that relaxes me, centers me, and uncensors me. I’m not scared to write about myself anymore. I can’t wait to get back to the desk, black up another pound of bond paper, and put it in the box.
When I’m not putting pages in the box, I’m typing letters and sending them out to people. I gifted myself some letterhead on nice thick paper, too thick, really, because I have no idea what I’m doing. I make mistakes on these letters: hit the wrong key, type into the footer because I don’t know where the bottom of the page is. I’ve written maybe ten or twelve so far, and I’m going to keep going until I run out of the nice letterhead paper (fifty), and then I’m going to buy more letterhead paper, but thinner.
I wrote my mother a letter just after she turned 73 at the end of August, and I think I told her I was proud of her. I may have asked her why there isn’t a number one key on my Royal (I have to use a lower case el.) I hadn’t gotten in the habit at that time of taking a photo of the letter before sending it out, so I’m not positive about what I wrote. I know that I never felt closer to her than when I told her how much I love her in these letters. These aren’t things we can do, really, on the phone or in person. It’s the typewriter, all these years later, that brought us as close as we’ve ever been in our lives, and I’m looking forward to the next one I write to her.