The Christmas I was fourteen, my parents bought me an electric typewriter for Christmas. It was my second typewriter; the first was small, pink, and I had to turn a wheel to choose the letter I wished to type. The new electric typewriter was grey, had a cover, a full-sized keyboard, and a backspace that activated an erase tape.
My desire for a typewriter stemmed from those rare occasions when my father would take me with him to work, where I entered a scene straight out of Mad Men. He worked in a high rise building where all of the secretaries sat in cubicles outside the attorneys’ offices, clicking and clacking away at their electric typewriters as fast as Clark Kent. It was captivating white noise.
In only a couple of years, typewriters in the work place would go the way of the dodo bird, but at the time, only a few had computers in their homes. My mother still pulled out her manual typewriter to fill out forms and write letters.
I wrote two books and countless stories of unrequited adolescent love with that electric typewriter. I still have them filed away, somewhere. I spent hours holed up in my room, typing until my joints ached. I dragged my parents to the office supply store and shelled out babysitting money for new ribbons and paper. That typewriter may have been the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I became obsessed with getting the thoughts that percolated in my young brain out, noisily, into printed format. I loved the whole typing process: the whirr of the machine when I turned it on, the methodical inserting of the paper, turning the feed rolls, engaging the shift lock, hitting the carriage release, and of course, the noise of the type striking the paper, making perfect ink impressions that would occasionally smear if I hit return before they dried.
Eventually, my parents bought our first computer: an Atari. A primitive printer came soon after, and it was noisy, but without my typewriter’s pleasant demeanor. It sounded like an instrument of torture each time it eked out one piece of printed paper. While the typewriter clicked away complacently, the printer made a loud and unseemly racket.
A better computer came in time, and I was allowed to take the Atari with me to college. I gave the computer up quickly; my roommate had a newer model that could access something called the internet, plus a campus-wide electronic mail system. The Atari went back home and gathered dust. After college, I got married, and happily, the new husband came with a set of Cutco knives and a brand new Dell.
In the years we’ve been married, we’ve purchased newer models. We’ve gone from the old bulky grey monitor to a sleek, black, flat-screen monitor. We have, in what seems an unnecessary indulgence, two printers: a laser and an ink-jet. We share the computer. Hundreds of Word documents and pictures have been transferred from computer to computer over the years.
This Christmas, the husband got me a netbook- a nice sized netbook with nearly a full-sized keyboard, and a tough, kid-proof exterior. (It crashed about five hours after I opened it, and I am still waiting for a replacement.) When the new netbook finally comes, I will own my very first computer. With my own secret passwords. My own files. My own, well, everything. My excitement is palpable! It feels almost like the Christmas I got my typewriter, especially since I found a program online where I can download typewriter sounds for my keyboard called “Home Typist.” The website claims that “the program is useful for home typists. At every touch of the keyboard there is the new sound, which makes the process of typing more interesting, amuses and reduces stress and helps to produce rhythmic typing.”
Somehow, I don’t think it will be quite the same. Also, I don’t think the patrons at Starbucks would appreciate the noise. So, I’m left with my memories… and high speed internet access. Just the same, I feel incredibly lucky to have been around at the end of an era- an era when writers could be inspired by the musical cadence of an old-fashioned typewriter.