Thanks to Mr. Hanks. Admiration for Mr. Olivetti.

IMG_1192I realized that Microsoft Word might amount to a liability. Editing as you go can stall forward momentum. More troubling still, the late great Gore Vidal said he could always tell whether a book had been written on a word processor. He didn’t mean it as a compliment. But what to do?

I briefly considered writing longhand. Perhaps that could restore some forward motion and some steerage for my wallowing ship. But my handwriting tends to be streaky; good some days, illegible on others.

Somewhere along the way, our current cultural movement of minimalism grabbed me, whispering the salvation of… vintage typewriters. For those who have seen my family photo, the blue fedora probably marks me out as having a certain hipster vulnerability. Perhaps I was ripe for exploitation. If so, Tom Hanks did me no favors with his NYT editorial, glowing with affection for those old non-electric beauties.

Hunting around, I found that Etsy offered a wide selection of both antique and vintage machines. And no, antique and vintage aren’t the same. The conditions of used typewriters range from decrepit to mint. Pricepoints likewise vary. Then you have choices between portable versus desktop, basket shift versus carriage shift, etc.

It turns out that Cormac McCarthy wrote most of his novels on a single machine. In typing over 5 million words, he supposedly never had to repair it. The reliability and writing comfort of that brand both seemed implicit in McCarthy’s example. Although his make and model wouldn’t carry any magic juju, I felt that I probably couldn’t go wrong in choosing it as a starting point. So I found the same machine in mint condition on Etsy, and I bought it. I love it. And here she is:


The 1960’s Olivetti Lettera 32 embodies the mechanical elegance of a late-generation machine. After the 60’s, typewriters began to use more plastic parts. Then came the electric hybrid machines, which eventually died away during the PC revolution. So the 60’s technology perhaps represents the zenith of purely mechanical typewriters, built with post-war manufacturing know-how and decades of prior design experimentation.

IMG_4887Hanks told the truth. These old machines have a physicality to them. You don’t tap the keys, you punch them. It isn’t about pressing hard per se. It’s more about velocity and momentum. You learn quickly that your computer has been helping your sloppy technique quite a bit, correcting for your semi-concurrent key presses. The typewriter shows you how much slop you actually have, as those hammers dog-pile on the page. Staccato! You have to strike and release, allowing the hammers to rebound before the next strike. Your hands must float above the keys: no more wrist resting. Meanwhile, you find a blessed absence of screen reflections and pixel-based eye strain. Instead, the paper glows softly under lamplight. The percussive fall of keys creates a rhythm, and you can actually feel when you’re in the flow and pouring out the words. The scent of ribbon ink suffuses all. And when you’re done, you haven’t simply typed text. You have hammer-branded pages, by god, and you can feel the imprints on both sides of the sheet.

IMG_4821For those who sit in front of a computer for work — all day, every day — this change of desk “environment” proves more than welcome. I think one of the virtues of the vintage typewriter is that it satisfies an inner hunger to have some “place apart”. No windows, no email, no timers, no settings. Heck, you cannot even change the font. The mental clutter clears.

The downside? Mistakes sit indelibly on the page. No backspace. No erasure. But is that a downside? Yes and no. You have to move on. Forward. Those errors can be fixed in the next draft. That is what the typewriter does: it separates your first and subsequent drafts. And yes, it is slower. That is also good and bad. Because you cannot erase, you think a bit more before littering the page. For me, the twin pressures help: you have to think before writing and postpone editing until the next draft. You are there simply to get the story down.

Whether I will always write on my Olivetti remains to be seen. Scanning and OCR are always there to bridge back to digital. For now, I’m enjoying my green machine and have stacked up 60 to 80 pages of draft beside it. Some of the draft is terrible. Some is better. But some of it captures threads and prose that would never have been born on my word processor. Vidal was onto something. You do write with a different texture when you’re away from the pixels and perpetual edits.

My thanks to Mr. Hanks, and my admiration to Mr. Olivetti.


  1. I still can’t believe how tidy your desk is!

    You can’t argue with 60+ pages.

    Well done Matt, and I’m glad you’re having fun. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. archaeopteryx1 says:

    …the blue fedora probably marks me out as having a certain hipster vulnerability. – Was that you? I thought it was Frank.

    Scooby dooby doo, la da dee da —

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like it is helping your process.

    I used to have an electric typewriter. The keys were easy enough to press, IIRC. Might that help accelerate your typing, but otherwise bring you similar benefits?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you figured out how to type an exclamation point yet?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Years (many) ago, I used an electric typewriter in my job. One of my duties as a secretary was to type statistical tables for a particular department. Being the conscientious person I am, I checked and double-checked to be sure all the numbers were correct and that everything was lined up before I submitted my work.

    Alas, 9 times out of 10, my efforts were for naught because the representative from the department would show up at my door with “corrections” to the figures in the table. Not MY corrections … THEIR changes.

    I think you know what that meant. Arrrrggghhh!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. In the early 80’s, I made it through college on a manual typewriter. (Not all the professors would accept papers done on a word processor, they didn’t like the dot-matrix printing or the weird edges of the tractor-feed perforated paper.) Later in the early 90’s I worked at a law firm that should have had computers, but instead had word processors that were essentially typewriters with a memory function, to save your document to disc. To print them out, it was essentially automated typing, where you had to manually feed each page and the machine would type it with the daisy wheel.

    As much as I can appreciate the aesthetics of old machines, I’m not going back.

    (Last night I watched a recent French movie, “Populaire” that was set in 1959, and the main characters were involved in speed-typing contests on manual typewriters.)

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

SoundEagle 🦅ೋღஜஇ

Where The Eagles Fly . . . . Art Science Poetry Music & Ideas

Michael Seidel, writer

Science fiction, fantasy, mystery and what-not

cas d'intérêt

Reflections of a Francophile

Two Wheels Across Texas

My Quest to ride through all 254 Texas Counties

She Seeks Nonfiction

A skeptic's quest for books, science, & humanism

Uncommon Sense

I don’t want to start a class war; it started a long time ago and, unfortunately, we lost.

%d bloggers like this: