THE BELL DINGS FOR ME: On Writing with a Typewriter, a craft essay by Toby Juffre Goode

THE BELL DINGS FOR ME
On Writing with a Typewriter

A Craft Essay
by Toby Juffre Goode

I pack up my laptop and some comfortable clothes and pull away from my mile-high mountain home in Northern Arizona to drive hundreds of desert miles. I’m headed for the women’s writing retreat I attend every January in Palm Springs, California. I’m anxious. The five-hour drive facing me isn’t the problem. It’s the slump I’ve languished in for too long. I haven’t touched my memoir manuscript in months. A few essay ideas poke at me, but I ignore them. My heart isn’t in it. If not for the women I look forward to seeing and the money I paid up front to attend, I’d sit this one out.

I pass through Skull Valley and Yarnell, and keep going beyond Hope. I cross the California border into Blythe and drive on through mind-numbing miles of dry dirt, desert scrub, and sporadic crumbled foundations.

Stuff the anxiety, I tell myself. I’m tired of it. Inspiration will find me.

I arrive at the historic Casa Cody Inn and go in search of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author, teacher, mentor, and my friend who leads these annual retreats. Over the past year I observed this woman of many passions delve into yet another: typewriters. I’ve lost count of the prized acquisitions she posts on Instagram. Where the hell is she putting all these typewriters? Barbara lives in a tiny cottage by the sea in Southern California. Has she gone off the deep end?

I find her in her room at the Winter’s House where she has three typewriters set up and ready to fly. Barbara points out her prized Olivetti Lettera 32, a Royal Aristocrat, and a Smith Corona Classic Electra. She tilts her head and grins.

“You’re welcome to try one out while you’re here,” she says. “If you want.”

I’m rooming next-door to Barbara. During the day I hear her typing. And I love the sound.

One particular night she’s typing while I read in bed. Rhythmic and meditative, the sound soothes me. I want to fall asleep listening. I shut my light. She stops typing. I’m disappointed.

The next day Barbara mentions that she has a Smith Corona electric in the trunk of her car that I can play with. “I’m selling it on Craigslist,” she says. “I can’t keep them all.”

I humor her. I lug the portable typewriter in its case to my room. It reminds me of a bowling ball. My father’s bag and shoes waited for him by the front door every Thursday night—his bowling night with the Knights of Columbus. I’d always try, but I wasn’t strong enough to lift it.

I hoist the case up onto my desk and struggle to release the typewriter. I don’t remember my portable typewriter in college being this cumbersome. Plug it in, feed a sheet of paper through the roller thingy, and flip the switch. Oh yeah—I’d forgotten that motor sound. Do I remember how to use this thing? I consider the keys. My fingertips find home row. Like getting on a bike again. The next thing I know I’m typing. Energy flows into my fingers. I can still do this! Even though it’s been more than thirty years. Through the serial number, Barbara confirms that this typewriter was manufactured in 1964. I was only eight years old then, trying to pick up Dad’s bowling bag. Talk about a time machine.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

During the four-day retreat I write on the Smith Corona instead of my laptop. I work on one of my essay ideas, but after a rough page or two I’m compelled to bang away about this infatuating typewriter experience. Hitting the keys takes effort and discernment. Too little pressure delivers a faint h; too much and a sputter of hhhhhs spit onto the paper. But once I get the touch, it’s fun. I type. I’m warming up. Thoughts sizzle.

By day two I’m more than smitten. I peer into Smith Corona’s open heart where metal typebars wait to slap letters on the platen (the roller thingy has an official term, I learn), the way piano keys send hammers flying upward to strike strings. A musical staccato sings out: you’re writing! Inspiration has come—in the form of a Smith Corona Coronet electric typewriter.

“I want to buy it,” I tell Barbara.

I wonder about who played on these cream-colored, black-lettered keys before I came along. Did their fingers peck their way, or dance with abandon over the keyboard? Maybe they explored reams of poetry, or stalked stories that were going nowhere yet eventually arrived. I imagine letters of friendship, apology, or long-overdue explanations of love lost. Were pages pulled from the typewriter, crumpled in a ball, and thrown across the room? Or sealed into an envelope and mailed far away? Both actions more gratifying than the lifeless computer functions delete and send.

I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

In college I wrote essays and term papers on my typewriter. Nothing about it seemed complicated and I never worried that I might break the machine. Now the same simple functions bewilder me and I’m afraid I’ll damage it. I study the blue-gray metal housing and once-creamy-white, now-yellowed keys. I’m the new proud owner with a zillion questions. You’d think I was taking home a newborn baby. How do I change the ribbon? What size ribbons do I need, and where can I possibly buy them? What paper do I use? Should I clean the metal levers? If it breaks, do typewriter repair shops still exist?

I’m bringing this vintage baby home. I’m excited. The five-hour drive back is a breeze. That night I don’t mention my new typewriter to my husband. I park Smith Corona on the desk in my office and wait for his reaction.

“Is that a typewriter I’ve been hearing?” Phil says a few mornings later. There’s a twinge of amusement in his half smile. He thinks it’s cool, I can tell. He’s not a writer, but I bet the typewriter evokes memories for him too.

Now an integral tool in my writing practice, Smith Corona welcomes me, idea-filled or empty. Of course you’re going to write, it says to me. Why else would you sit here? So, I act as if. I slap keys. Words splay across the paper, add up to sentences, and run into paragraphs. Prompts and free writes still help me, but my typewriter gets me moving out of my own way. Blank whiteness begs for more—good or bad makes no difference.

When I write on my laptop, I revise—to a fault. The trained copyeditor/proofreader in me wants every sentence perfect. Tempted by the online thesaurus, and cut and paste functions, I’m seduced into premature editing. I wander the Internet in the name of research, or more likely in a search for those boots I’m coveting. My creative flow is choked like a gutter full of leaves.

But my Smith Corona sentences read perfectly imperfect, as they should at this point in the process. The snap-snap of the keys scores my mantra: write freely, write freely. My inner critic quiets.

I type away. The bell dings and cheers me on: another line! I may not have a page worth saving. But I love the physical effort required, and I’m proud of the wadded up white paper balls collecting by my feet. They validate that I showed up. I’m in the chair, thrashing in a pool of possibility. I hate my writer self a little less.

A painter layers color with brush strokes. A weaver threads weft through warp on her loom. Artists explore and create with their tools. On my Smith Corona I compose with jazz hands and a cacophony of sounds to silence the controlling, demeaning, perfection-demanding voice in my head. I type through it. Critics be damned, I say. The bell dings for me and I keep writing for the love of it.


Toby Juffre Goode lives in Northern Arizona where she writes creative nonfiction and memoir. Her advertising writing career has taken her from the NBC affiliate in Boston to Playgirl Magazine to the Walt Disney Company in Southern California. She owns one manual and two electric typewriters, and counting.

 

 

 

Featured image by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash
Author photo by William Sulit

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.