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On Writing, Typewriters, and Cormac McCarthy

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I used to be the sort of person who, when he couldn’t think of anything to write, would sit at a computer and type about the woefully uninteresting fact that I couldn’t think of anything to write. Not write about it, but type about it. Ramble. Refuse to think thoughts through before hammering them out on a keyboard. Ramble. Write what occurred to me about my current state of mind, which was so dreadfully dull to even me that I had nothing to say, yet thought it ironically interesting to state this fact – to say nothing, in far more words than necessary. And ramble.

Then it occurred to me that I was failing to think clearly about my writing – that a peculiar key-striking fetish had taken over my limited but slowly improving skills. Strike a key. Progress. Enter another sentence. Progress. Ctrl-S. Progress. But I wanted to improve. I was working on a skill, not stroking a fetish… It was time to put pencil to paper.

For a year I handwrote one index card per day. 10 lines. 10 words per line. 100 words per day. 3,000 words per month. And by the end of each month, I could use those index cards – rearrange them into essays, stories, arguments. The words on the cards were commitments. I meant them in ways that I didn’t mean the words on the word processor. The cards were tangible. They were mine. A new fetish.

Arranging and rearranging cards were exercises in structure. This is how to tell a story that begins where it ends: arrange the cards in a circle. This is how one idea becomes two: arrange the cards in a V. Patterns. Shapes. And now I could discern these shapes and patterns in other works. And I knew who rambled. I could hear the word processor’s echo in articles and essays written too quickly. The unmistakable fetish. Ctrl-S. Progress.

So I practiced my method. I wrote a dissertation by hand. Typed it into a computer. Printed and edited by hand. 50,000 terse words. Compact prose. Deliberate words, because they were written with my body. Think first, then write. Think again. Write more. Over and over, this was the pattern. And it showed. Handwritten works show themselves in their economy. No wasted words, because words become physical acts, unlike the digital buzz-humming of word-processed rambling. A fetish for economy.

Yesterday I read that Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter sold at auction for upwards of a quarter of a million dollars.

Last week, I picked up my newly refurbished 1938 Royal KMM typewriter. It had been a gift, buried on my desk under a stack of printed papers. But I decided to have it fixed up so that I could give it a try. Immediately I remembered the joy of the sounds and the smooth strokes of a manual typewriting machine. And I quickly learned how weak my hands had become in the digital age.

But moreover, I learned what had happened to my mind – my writing mind. As I reflect on the fact that McCarthy wrote all of his novels – by his account, over 5,000,000 words – on a manual typewriter, I realize that the manual typewriter inspires the ultimate physical writing fetish. Pure. Intentional. Economical. I realized that even my preferred handwritten method is no match for the precision required by a machine without the capacity for correction. Not just precision with fingers – mental precision. And an economy like no other method insists on.

McCarthy’s is the prose of a man who has taken the time to think things through. Never a word-processed ramble. Always crisp. Clean. Economical. The kind of thinking that a typewriter demands.

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About Brian Sorrell

Writer, Storyteller, Philosopher, Expat, Father
  • I love this! Writing is such a physical act. I use a computer most of the time, but go to my pen and notebook whenever my brain locks up. Haven’t used a typewriter in years, but I can still hear the keys and carriage. A typewriter does produce something satisfying that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Great essay!

  • I like this too. Although with carpal tunnel, I could never hit the keys of the Remington manual my mother gave me for my high school graduation. Same goes for physically writing. Thank God for the computer! In some ways, the word count feature keeps me honest.

  • [conservative-bating mode engaged]

    I hear that Governor Granholm is introducing a toll on the carpal tunnel.

    [conservative-bating mode disengaged]