UNITED STATES—Gloria must have overheard when I spoke longingly about the enduring allure of a manual typewriter. I have been editing a volume which contains a old story written on my beloved Olivetti, and the process reflected these musings, both nostalgic and speculative, about literary technology.
“Technology takes over our lives,” demurred Manny the tech guy, who confirmed that Gloria, my new computer, had a defective hard drive. The next morning, after divulging to a friend the remembered charms of typewriters, Gloria insisted on showing me only black screen. Machines indeed possess a sensitivity, a profound sensitivity. The exasperated fist-banging person, challenged by technology, seldom has ‘the magic touch’ with machines. And I should have watched my tongue around Gloria, my computer, who obviously resented hearing my opinion that the early story I rediscovered had a pronounced punch and precision I’ve found in other early stories.
There’s no doubt that technology influences writing. After the advent of the typewriter, Henry James took to dictating his books. As a result, he became housebound and dependent on a secretarial staff. While producing “The Ambassadors,” and “The Golden Bowl,” the immediacy and vividness of jotting observations and stories in the field became verbal orgies, not without their dramatic zing.
Likewise Gabriel Garcia Marquez proved an old dog could learn new tricks. He became ardently devoted to the computer after “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1982), outfitting apartments in Bogota, Paris and his residence in Mexico City with identical Apple Mac computers. The books became more diffuse, but more numerous. Bigger as well. The first 20 years of his writing career yielded four books; the last 20, seven books: four novels, a story collection, and two sizeable volumes of non-fiction.
On the other hand, Woody Allen sticks to his standard manual typewriter–he probably has the ribbons sent from Sweden. In fact the early 1950s SM-3, bought when he was sixteen is the only typewriter he has ever used. Allen is an artist who has the prerogative of limiting the technology to the known and comfortable. The method has shown to be highly effective. It worked for decades in Hollywood and it has worked for Allen, whose career has prolonged decades.
You can sculpt sentences with a typewriter. I feel like it involves the whole body. The electronic keyboard is more cerebral, and the words once wrought in electric ink exert a tremendous inertia. It took me a couple years, when I adopted the computer to write a decent story, after much editing and re-reading.
Before re-reading this old story of mine, “Paso Robles,” I had dismissed it as redundant, merely important for paving the way to my first novel, it was a surprise to discover it as a tale in its own right, that language concentrated and vivid. That’s a quality it shares with most of my early typewritten stores. Rather than chalk up too much to a typewriter, let’s just say the more leisurely and physical method opens the door to a certain je ne sais quois.
Would I go back to a manual? If I did it would have to be a pica. But what about the ease of a printed story and revising it, and transmitting digital files for publication. Going manual would have to be a stage, a restoration of an earlier step in the process. Nothing can beat the computer when it comes to storing the work and being able to duplicate it. Then again its the abyss that a computer plunges one into when it fails. There’s loss of material, and little corners of the body of work, and other stored effort, such as programs. For me this has never been easy, but it is getting easier. I have weathered this upheaval before.