Brand building through storytelling

Writing machines I have known and loved

The only interactive exhibit at Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta has no touch screen, flashing lights or sound effects. It sits atop a humble wooden desk, as chunky as my grandmother’s lace-up oxfords and as solid as her corseted bosom. Its button-size keys demand a firm touch, and its ribbon could use a change. On a manual typewriter like this one, Atlanta’s most celebrated daughter composed the 1000-plus pages of Gone With the Wind. When I stopped by one recent Friday morning, the machine had captivated two teenage girls who were pondering the mysteries of this thing called a carriage. A sign on the adjacent wall explained how to push it.

I used to own a dead ringer for Margaret Mitchell’s typewriter. Already decades old when my mother bought it for me in a second-hand store, it had been built to last, like the dining-room sets of Depression-era brides. It did not make way two or even ten years later for faster, sleeker models. On that machine I banged out so much magazine copy, so many applications for jobs I didn’t get, you’d think I would remember the brand (Remington? Smith Corona?). But I’ll never forget that pounding my typewriter’s keys felt like calisthenics for the fingers. When I finally found the rhythm of a magazine piece, every slam of the carriage pushed me forward to the next thought.

Our home must have been the same vintage as the typewriter. I wrote in a third-floor office tucked under the eaves and on good days my clacking made the whole house shake. “Writer at work,” it proclaimed. On bad days my family could hear the silence of frustration, the angry crackle of sheets ripped from the typewriter and pitched in the general direction of the wastebasket.

My husband cajoled me into buying my first computer—a wild extravagance, I thought. In 1982 I didn’t know any writers with computers (the lucky ones had IBM Selectrics). Since rounding that technological corner, I must have owned at least seven computers, each one shorter-lived than the last as I succumb to the allure of more memory or a sharper monitor. For what seems like forever, my computers have been tireless multi-taskers. (Why grope for an elusive phrase when I could be reserving that hotel room in Dayton, Ohio? Or watching a YouTube video that just cracked up a Facebook friend?) Yet the computer that won me over—that dazzled me like no other—did nothing at all but bring my words to the page.

Improbably snazzy, it had a green screen on which my prose glowed in the dark. My word processor, misnamed Easy Writer II, required many obscure keyboard commands to produce so much as a sentence, and its complications turned writing into an arcane ritual I never quite mastered. My printer made an even bigger racket than my fingers had produced on the typewriter, thanks to a gizmo called a daisy wheel that clattered and spun while striking characters onto a continuous sheet of perforated paper. (Need I tell you my printer had only one font, Courier?) The printer rested on a cast-off coffee table that someone had painted dandelion yellow. While the daisy wheel performed its magic, the table did a noisy dance and I would kneel before it, watching my story cascade onto the floor.

The entire process seemed a marvel until the final step: tearing the pages apart. For some reason I never understood, the edges of the paper sported perforated strips with holes like the ones designed for binders. By the time I’d extricated my story (and strewn my office floor with bits of shredded paper), you’d think a mouse had chewed my work.

Even so my copy had the power to astound my editors, all of whom were still using manual typewriters. My clever computer turned out lines identical in length, creating such a stir at a certain magazine that staffers flocked to the hall to admire the even margins of my one-page story on the G-spot. “Look at this!” they exclaimed. “Justified type!”

I hear that neither Cormac McCarthy nor Philip Roth has yet seen fit to enter the computer age. So conceivably some purist (I almost said “luddite”) is still clacking away on my forsaken manual typewriter. (As I said, it was built to last.) I have no such hopes for my first computer but I want my readers to know that once upon a time there were screens that glowed in the dark and daisy-wheel printers that danced up a storm while churning out justified type.

Do you have a memory of a favourite writing machine? This is the place to share it.


Posted by Rona

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