C.W. Gusewell


A writer's computer has no memories

I have experienced an epiphany, though not a revelation of the religious kind, that might very well prove to be my salvation as a writer.

It is the understanding that there is nothing to prevent my declaring that this column may be one of the last I’ll write on a computer before returning to my instrument of choice – a typewriter.

Which typewriter I can’t say, though if I actually do take the leap, there will be no shortage of machines to choose from.

For atop shelves and on a table in the upstairs sleeping porch, where a good many of our clothes are closeted, and which years ago served briefly as my office, 16 of the noble devices can be counted, all of them manual.

Of the 11 standard uprights, two are L.C. Smiths, five are Underwoods and four are Royals. The portables include, besides Underwoods and Royals, one other that is a bit of a collector’s item.

It’s is a small, extra-lightweight Hermes Baby, weighing just over 6 pounds and manufactured in the 1940s by a Swiss company whose other well-known products include music boxes.

Another portable, my favorite (which I’ll explain), is currently in the shop, being restored to perfect order after being unkindly treated by baggage handlers on an international flight.

All of the portables and at least three of the uprights could, with cleaning and lubrication, be put in decent working condition. Some would require only minor servicing.

An eighth portable, another Royal, lives at my Ozark cabin, for use on days when rain and wind discourage fishing, no morel mushrooms are up for picking, and writing might defeat the gray weather.

At home here, in the side room that I use daily now for working, there are two large electric machines, neither of them really operable, and yet another portable of undetermined brand, whose carrying case I haven’t yet managed to open.

My total stock amounts to 22 machines. There used to be 26, but some I’ve given away to aspiring young writers.

The typewriter I earlier called my favorite is the one I used in composing the work of which, after nearly 30 years, I’m still the proudest – 72 essays that were collected between covers as my first book, titled “A Paris Notebook.”

Sorting through some office drawers one recent day I came across those essays – not actually bound, but perforated at the left-hand edges and held neatly in order by some kind of plastic device.

The pages were not copies. They were the original foolscap – the cheap 812-by-11 paper on which writers commonly work – the ones I’d filled with words during the year my wife, our two daughters and I called Paris home.

And turning those pages, feeling them between my fingers, evoked sensations that I’m almost at a loss to explain.

I could hear again the clickety-click as the metal letters struck the page – a vigorous little racket, so unlike the silence of a computer.

When reading one of those essays – one that described the Paris street on which we lived – I could see again the view from the window through which I looked as I wrote that piece.

Another brought fresh to mind the sound of the piano played endlessly by the young man in the apartment directly above ours.

On yet another, I was reminded of the exact moment – in mid-sentence – when the “e” key had failed to work and I’d been obliged to strike off into the maze of an unfamiliar arrondissement in search of a repairman.

I used to travel much in my work. Besides France, I have carried that typewriter to England, Scotland, Spain and much of the rest of Western Europe, as well as Poland and Russia. Also to Israel, Lebanon and Jordan in the Middle East, to Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, the Congo and more than a dozen other republics in sub-Saharan Africa.

Each night before bed, unfailingly, I uncased the typewriter to make detailed notes of the day – people I’d spoken with, events observed, even the weather – all typed on the small pages of a pocket notebook so that despite the passage of time, nothing would be carelessly forgotten.

Those days are behind, and for most of two decades since I’ve been obliged to work almost exclusively on computers – first the desktop ones provided in the newspaper office and after that on a succession of laptops.

No vivid memories attach to any of those.

I also believe I write less well. That may only be an excuse, but there’s no doubt computers have changed the act of composition.

With the typewriter, just to think a phrase was to cause it to appear almost automatically on the page. But with a computer, mere habit is not enough. One is required to conform to some other man’s quite rigid protocols that determine how the machine must be operated. What’s more, deviate by pressing a wrong key and a day’s work may instantly disappear.

I’ve stated my wish to roll back time. It’s nothing that can be done immediately. My favorite typewriter is in getting a tune-up. Meanwhile, I’m weighing the risks and the possible benefits.

When it comes back from the shop, we’ll see if I have the courage to do what my heart commands.