Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Beast

When I was 21, having finally reached a level of commitment to the notion of writing, I went looking for my first typewriter. This was in 1975, I was living in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. I didn’t have a lot of money so never even considered buying something new. There were a couple of pawn shops in the area, and I went looking. I eventually came home with a beast of a machine – a Royal typewriter, a cast iron office model dating from the mid-40’s

The Beast weighs in at about 40 pounds. I’m sure I thought my Beast would be only a temporary burden, a necessary weight I’d bear for the short while until I established myself and could buy something newer. I never dreamed it would become such a loved and relied upon tool. That I’d lug it to Norfolk and Kansas City, to Seaside Oregon and Seattle, to little Sullivan, Indiana, and finally here to Toronto. I’ve set it up and written on it in all those places, on desks and kitchen tables. And though I’ve never felt that I write enough, and though there’ve been months-long stretches when the Beast has lay dormant, I’ve pushed quite a few reams of paper through it’s maw, and still have a few stacks of it piled around and boxed up.

I still write longhand, in my journal, and the occasional letter. And, for over a decade now, there’s been the computer, word processing for a bit longer. That’s three ways I write, or rather, three tools I write with, or three media I write in:

There’s my hand, with a pen, moving across the page, scratching out the shapes of letters.

There are my fingers plunking down on the jointed, steel keys with their glass tops, watching and feeling the levers respond to my pressure and sending the lettered keys flying up and into a slot, aligning each imprint with the preceeding and the following strokes.

And then there’s the different, softer flow of fingers over an almost fluid keyboard - barely moving compared to the other - and watching the letters blip up on the screen, like popcorn, and disappear again as quickly when I want them too, and reshape themselves and auto-correct.

They are three very different ways of writing, and though interchangeable, I’ve found that each suits an overlapping set of moods, energies, approaches.

I love the Beast for First Drafts, for sitting down without a preconceived thought, letting come what will come. The Beast is big and hard and clunky, and rattles and snaps and grinds its teeth while I write. I produced the first draft of my novel, and most of my stories on the Beast. I can start afresh with every line, do cross outs with the hyphen or slash keys, reverse and type over, without a worry of the accidental delete. And best of all, I have all the outpouring, including the second and third guesses, the false starts, the shifts in direction, the bad spelling, the errant impulses, the cringe-inducing word choices all right there. It’s all compressed on a sheet that I can rip right off of the roller and hold in hand, then mark up with a pen or pencil as I wish.

The LongHand, in my bound journal...? An entirely different deal there. It’s a slow, physical shaping of every letter, so that the word can sometimes change between the time I start and finish it. A dozen thoughts will crowd around the one I choose. It’s a more personal and inward writing. This is the space my letters come out of. More of the heart comes through over the mind. Yes, writing in a different way gives way to a different writing.

And the computer...? Well, it’s just so fast and easy. And fluid and everchanging. And when I’m done with a piece, I hardly know what I started with, or the path by which I got here, because all that is gone.

Back to the Beast, though.

It ALWAYS works! I swear I could drop it from a roof and there’d be a hole in the sidewalk and I could type away like nothing happened.

And I can use the same ribbon for months. When it reaches the end, the ribbon simply reverses and tracks backward. Very gradually – and I mean over a course of many weeks - I notice a lightening of the impression on paper. But this is a manual model, anyway, and I can adjust the imprint simply by adjusting the amount of pressure.

And the Beast is quite the beautiful machine. It’s beautiful in the same way as an old car or refrigerator – its functionality and integrity seems to show on its face, even in its shape. It seems to be made to do the thing it does, moreso or in a deeper way than these modern machines built to fall apart or decay as soon as the new model is released, and then to have its parts used for something else. It’s hard to imagine parts of this machine, this BEAST, becoming part of anything else. Ever. Just fine by me.

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