Processed Words

by Jim Farrar (1986)

If I watch my hands on a typewriter, I don't recognize their movements. It's like witnessing an interior part of my body going through some business.

David Sudnow
From Ways of the Hand

When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me an electric typewriter, which I used for eleven years. I wrote my college assignments, letters, short stories, a couple of plays, a lot of awful poems, and filled out forms and wrote checks on that typewriter. It was my most valued possession. It meant more to me than my car.

The thing is, I'm not a particularly good typist; I never have been, probably never will be. I have clumsy fingers and can barely type my own name without making a mistake. Over the years, I've spent more money on liquid paper than my parents ever considered spending on the typewriter itself. Even so, my typewriter managed to become something of an appendage to me, a prosthesis that didn't always work properly.

To me, a ball point pen and a pencil are foreign objects. Whenever I attempt to use them, pen and paper being the most direct link, they say, between the brain and the printed page, I do poorly. To think clearly and to commit to paper what I'm thinking, my fingers need to move. I need to type.

I never thought I'd part with that typewriter. Though I've never typed well, I've always known, it seems, how to type. My stepfather sold typewriters for a living, so there were always plenty of them around the house for me to practice on.

When I was in elementary school I used to type my reports, using a crude hunt-and-peck method, which amounted to nothing more than copying verbatim the pertinent entry from our family's outdated edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on an old Royal typewriter with a worn-out ribbon and a sticky E key. I learned at an early age that packaging is everything.

There's something about the sound a typewriter makes that feels right, much like the voice of an old and trusted friend. The noise the keys make as they hit the paper sound natural to me, providing a familiar rhythm to the writing process. The typewriter has helped mold, I'm certain, my style and my diction; it's the anvil on which I've hammered out my voice, ink upon metal and metal upon paper, as though learning to speak through the movements of my fingers and the tap-tap-tap, the bursts and the slower, more paced, single-strikes followed by silence, of the keys. I learned to think with a typewriter. It's been both friend and enemy, an indispensable tool which I used to feel could never be parted with or replaced.

These days, I write with a word processor. Ribbon and keys have been replaced by microchip and diskette. I create words and watch them appear and disappear on a tiny tv screen, rather than pound them out in black and white. The transition has been painless.

But don't get me wrong. Initially I had my doubts, and it took some doing to convince me that my writing could actually improve once I got used to the machine.

The computer helps a writer realize his potential.

Actually, what the machine does is help the writer correct his shortcomings. The glory of the microchip is not that it stimulates creativity (it doesn't), but that it expedites rewriting. If the typewriter can be seen as an extension of the mind, then the computer is a tool that does the same thing a typewriter does, only faster and better. It helps a writer see and edit the finished product in seconds, while the thought is still fresh in the mind. Sentences and words can be moved, deleted, and printed almost instantly, and then saved for future use. It's better than liquid paper.

To be honest, I've never been intimidated by the prospect of learning how to use a computer. But I didn't always see it as being that much of an improvement over the typewriter, either. The keyboard, after all, looks much the same on a word processor as it does on a typewriter. The letters are all there, in the same order. The only difference, I used to think, is that the noise of keys slapping against paper is replaced by the quiet whirring of the fan in the disk drive.

I was assured by my wife, a technical writer, that once I'd used a word processor I'd be hooked. A computer, she said, would enable me to "concentrate on my writing, instead of my typing."

With this in mind, I went to a dealer. I told the salesman I was interested in a word processor. I was ushered to a table upon which sat, I was informed, a machine that was absolutely state-of-the art. I sat down at the terminal and typed a few words. Feels like a typewriter, I thought, a very expensive typewriter, but a typewriter nonetheless.

Now any writer will tell you that the key to good writing is rewriting. It's a platitude, of course, but it must be reiterated here. It was a fact I'd been overlooking in the showroom. True, the word processor does perform much the same function as a typewriter. What I didn't realize in the store, however, is how easy it is to rewrite with a computer. How could I? You don't walk into a store and sit down and write a novel or play or a poem. Or even a letter. This is done at home, after reading the installation instructions.

My wife and I received a computer as a wedding gift. Had it not been given to us, I'd probably still be using my old electric typewriter. Looking back, this seems rather unappealing.

We need not fear technology, I've concluded. Progress is inevitable and, who knows, perhaps the word processor will eventually become obsolete, replaced by another machine that will decode and print voice dictation.

This, of course, would eliminate the fingers from the writing process, which in turn makes me wonder whether or not the thought processes behind the fingers would be altered as well.

While writing, I've always been acutely aware of the movement of my fingers; it is, I think, one of the integral parts of the creative act. Perhaps that's why we make gestures with our hands as we speak, as if language alone is insufficient for the articulation of meaning.

"Hands-on experience" is the term those who sell computers use to refer to the process by which a person is trained to use a machine or a specific program. It is a good term. It emphasizes the proper channel of perception.

I mention the hands because it is through the hands, my hands, that I've learned to use a computer, to--there's that word again--think with a machine.

How well can people write without their hands? I wonder.

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