I’m digging in my archives. The computer’s early promise of freeing us from paper was not only wrong, what was right was the reverse. I have more paper than ever, and most of it is the same size, the same readable white, the same slick, lifeless feel. Hefting paper-wrapped bags of paper, ripping them open like cartridges of gunpowder, and fitting blocks of cloned blank sheets into the trays of copiers and printers is a normal part of my day.

As I dig deeper, the technology changes. I’ve uncovered a layer of bond with textures. The white is duller. The white is yellower. As I burrow beyond lasers and inkjets the look of the language changes. The words were left behind by a dot matrix printer, or possibly a gadget fitted with a daisy wheel. These machines were so noisy that they lived inside transparent plastic sound hoods. The emaciated letters of each word look like they need a sandwich. The paper feels as if it has pores. It’s linty at the edges where I ripped away the perf after ripping the document from the tractor-feed printer. All that ripping would’ve been more satisfying if the paper hadn’t been so fragile. The fastest way to destroy paper is to attempt to rip it along a perforation.

In the bedrock I’ve found evidence of the giants that once roamed our world: mimeos and typewriters.

The words in the mimeoed documents are still that extraterrestrial blue or purple. The addictive smell, sadly, is gone, replaced by a whiff of mustiness from the paper’s longtime home in a wrinkled cardboard file folder. In the late ’80s there were still a few mimeoed fanzines. The hardware and supplies were still available. I met the local mimeo manufacturer’s rep at a science fiction convention in Seattle at about that time. He was demonstrating what he called “the big iron” and apparently making sales.

I know that typewriters are enjoying a renaissance. Are some of the new typists cutting stencils on their typewriters and cranking them through mimeos? If they are, I hope they’re mailing the pages to each other. I don’t want to see the U.S. Postal Service die. I’ve been loving the mail too long to stop now.

The few typewritten pages I’ve found in the archives have character, like characters you no longer read about in books. You don’t just read the words, you trace their indentations in the paper. I can recall that long-ago muscle memory of hitting the thick plastic keys on their metal levers. I typed these pages on different weights and finishes of paper (but never that greasy onion skin “erasable” stuff that was supposedly better for fixing mistakes). What were all of those grades of paper for? Beats me. What comes out of the printer today works for everything.

When I graduated from high school in 1973, my parents gave me a Smith-Corona Classic manual typewriter. It had a green metal hull. The metal felt like armor. The hood above the ribbon and the type bars stayed cool in the hottest weather. When I got up some speed on it, it produced a clacking thunder that drove my family to exile me to the basement. My college roommates made me use the common room with the doors shut after 11 o’clock.

Dad ordered my typewriter with a special key – an exclamation mark. What an innovation from the incredible hulks I had pounded away on before that! Instead of typing a period, then backspacing to the period and typing an apostrophe, I could perform two operations in one step. The people in my stories became more vigorous in their speech.

My typewriter also had a half-space key, which was perfect for fitting a footnote inside a comma or period. (On my machine, I “toggled” to superscript by rolling the carriage up one click, typing the number, and rolling it back.) This system worked best for footnotes 1-9. My typewriter also had a Power Bar, not something to eat when inspiration flagged but a hidden ratchet that could speed the movement of the carriage – like hopping from word to word in Word. The ratchet had a businesslike growl.

In 1979 I was working on a story that, on rereading, I realized was too long and misorganized. I did what every typewriter writer did. I cut up the manuscript with scissors. I threw away the extraneous parts, did some rearranging, and taped it back together. And then I did something that would’ve been impossible at the start of the decade: I went to a place called Gnomon Copy, in Cambridge, Mass., and had them make a cleaner manuscript for me so I could mark it with my edits. You can’t write over tape, but you can write on a copy of your taped-up pages.

Then it was time to type a finished copy to send to an ecstatic editor. It always took me a long time to type a finished copy. I was fast but I made mistakes. I had Wite-Out and correcting tape, but a sheet of paper looks bedraggled with a dozen errors on it, no matter how neatly you wielded the Wite-Out brush. You couldn’t make copies of your repaired pages because most editors wouldn’t accept copies. A manuscript that billowed out of a Xerox was probably a manuscript you had sent to 15 places at the same time. And in that era you could always tell which was a copy and which was fresh from your typewriter.

Fortunately, that summer I also had a girlfriend, Judy, who used an awe-inspiring tool at her office: an IBM Selectric. She was superfast on that humming power plant. She offered to type up a presentable copy of my story. She even gave me a choice of fonts. I loved the tray of Selectric typing elements, and finally chose Gothic. Judy was so agreeable that she willingly retyped pages after I’d proofed them and found things I wanted to change.

Our teamwork paid off, and that story was published in 1980 in a paperback anthology of short science fiction. Within two years I went to work in an office where I had access to a Lanier word processor. Though this myopic device would only let me work on one page of a document at a time (no global search and replace), it taught me that writing could be a lot less physical. By the end of the ’80s I was using Macs and PCs. I had started out writing my stories in longhand for a few pages, then switching to my Smith-Corona. Now I started with the typewriter and switched to my computer. But the computer was so fast, and errors so cheap, that I began to do my preliminary thinking in front of a screen. I used the typewriter less and less.

Somewhere around 1990, I took my typewriter to my regular office-supply store in Seattle. It was the last place in Seattle that serviced typewriters. They turned me away. They were done with typewriters. There was no Internet yet; ribbons and repair people were tough to find. I sold my typewriter at one of our yard sales, to a college kid who wanted to live in an attic and be a writer. The black plastic carrying case had some of my best stickers on it!

When I found those typed pages, I felt the labor from my fingers, and I thought of my Smith-Corona and wished (as I’ve wished many times) that I’d kept it. And as I always do, I told myself that if I’d kept it, by now it would’ve racked up about 20 years of hibernating in a closet. As much as I love typewriters, I would consider it a life-changing inconvenience if I had to return to one.

I’ve recycled a compost heap of paper. The archives are leaner. But the fossil record remains.

Type on!

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STEVEN BRYAN BIELER bats right, throws right, leans left. Long ball hitter, but deadly with a vignette. Long-range plan: To appear in The New Yorker's "20 Under 80" fiction issue. Bieler lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, the mystery writer Deborah Donnelly, and their dog, who is illiterate. He works as a writer and editor and teaches chess to grades K-8 (the one population of chess players he can always beat). Bieler makes fun of your favorite bands at http://rundmsteve.wordpress.com/.

7 responses to “Things That Go Clack in the Night”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    A lovely ode to old word machines. You nearly brought that smell of mimeograph and Wite-Out back into the room for me. There was once such a thing as an original copy, I guess? The errors are cheap now, which has to be why they end up appearing in final drafts so often, and soon enough probably won’t count as errors at all. But thanks for the nostalgia that I know better than to, as you say, actually return to.

  2. Gloria says:

    Lovely. Type on, Steven!

  3. Art Edwards says:

    What fine writing, Steven. You brought so much back for me with your use of the language, stuff I thought was gone forever.

    They’ll look back on this past decade and say, that’s where it all changed.


  4. […] of the Week I forgot to list my latest post at The Nervous Breakdown! I write about typewriters, mimeos, and other machines that once decided the fate of empires. I […]

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