I have been thinking about the shape of things because, in addition to the Christmas ritual—which when dissected seems a rather bizarre combination of festivity and tedium—my birthday is at the end of December, and Scott gave me a 1930s Underwood portable typewriter. (Oh the beauty of the vintage machine!)

The Underwood

I have always known that the tools we use to write make a difference. Until recently, I only wrote in longhand, hundreds of pages. I considered typing up those pages my first round of revisions, because I’d make small changes as I went. However, graduate school necessitated a change. To save time, I taught myself to compose at the computer, first only papers, then fiction as well. Now I mostly compose on the keyboard, but there are times when I need to return to handwriting. There is something about the kinesthetic process of moving a hand across a page, of the weight of that writing utensil against the fingers, that aids the creative flow.

Getting the whole hand moving feels apropos to working through. If I get stuck at the keyboard, then switching to paper and pencil will free me up. It effects a palpable switching of the mental gears. Granted, my body has muscle memory: that certain rounding of the upper back, the curve of the neck to accommodate a downward gaze, the edge of the right hand on the paper, pencil cradled in the fingers, the left to right flow across the page, line after line after line. I enter a new creative space. Even if you don’t have a history of writing longhand, I would bet that switching from keyboard to pen would have a similar effect, because changing the body changes the mind. One switch leads to another.

My composing utensil of choice is a fat mechanical pencil with a rubber grip and .7 mm 2B lead. When I need ink, as for a journal (pencil would smear), I use a fountain pen with a fine nib. My particularity is both a matter of aesthetic and performance. These are the tools that please me, that feel best in my hand, that write smoothly and quickly.

And now I have the Underwood.

I owed someone a thank you note, but instead of finding a note card, I fed a sheet of paper into the Underwood. The letter began blandly enough: Dear Nico and Sharon, Thank you for the…. But something happened as I typed. I felt like a part of something else, something we have mostly lost touch with in this era of sound bytes and tweets. I felt like a “woman of letters.” I realize that sounds silly, but the spatial relations shifted as I typed. The content, what I wrote, was informed by the technology, the tool with which I wrote.

Indulge the romantic for a moment longer. When communication was not instantaneous and distance posed actual hardship, letters nourished relationships. People shared not only news of the day, but also their reflections on life and the humanities. I felt that my letter should take a reflective stance, should contain more than “thank you” and “take care.”

Furthermore, the technology forced me to process words in my head instead of on the page. There is no delete key. There is no blinking cursor to move about the page. There is only the option to strike out text. I found that once a word was committed to the page, I was committed to the word. Instead of changing that word, I paused to consider the next word. My mind adapted quickly to this think-before-you-strike mode of word processing. At the typewriter, composing becomes a more considered thing, and the process of putting words on the page a more satisfying mechanical experience.

Scott has a similar experience with photography. He has dozens of cameras that range from a massive wood, brass, and bellows box circa the 1890s to a professional digital outfit. Which camera he uses determines the process involved in making an image. In the end, he’s still making an image. The image will have somewhat different qualities depending on if it’s film or digital, but by and large an image is an image. And a story is a story. Right?

Yes, by and large a story is a story. Form and function affect the writer’s process, but if we affect the process, can we avoid affecting the outcome? Aren’t the two intrinsically tied? I think they are. Next time the gears get stuck, instead of trying a writing exercise, try a different way of writing. Leave the keyboard and pick up the pen. Or pound the keys on an old typewriter for a while. See what shakes loose. It might be something that would not have occurred at the keyboard.

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