I’ve always wanted an attic. More specifically, I’ve always wanted a neglected room with pristine — if not a little scratched and dusty — old stuff hidden in it, conveniently located somewhere in my own home. The promise of living history, if only sleeping in a heap somewhere a wall or two away, is enough to get the best of my imagination. As a kid, the eaves of my house scratched that itch. I’d regularly excavate one off of my grandma’s den, crawling over plastic tubs as I pried their lids ajar to peer inside and reach towards any conspicuous plastic limb or displaced miniature. As I grew older, my mind drifted towards family heirlooms or remnants from previous homeowners: a neglected guitar; an old-timey gramophone; a fedora from a time when they weren’t insignias of wretchedness. Things like naturalization papers and family photographs turned up, which enriched my understanding of what I come from. But those are records that need to be remembered and preserved, not tools.
The things we work with hold the most stories. Once upon a time, those things were made of metal. They usually possessed long lives and survived the stories of their initial buyers. They were seen differently by the young ones who took them next, but demanded to be spoken to on their own terms, however rusty and tedious their ways grew. If you listened and indulged their complexities, they would teach you something new, if not forgotten.
While watching the Oscars last February, the shelves of classic typewriters rolled out to compliment the Best Screenplay awards prompted my father to remark, “You should have my typewriter out.” I had been thinking of typewriters recently. They became the new treasure I’d dreamt of finding tucked away somewhere in my own home. I knew my mother’s clunky “portable” machine from the seventies was ossifying among the luggage, but after toying with that one as a child I thought it lacked the romantic ancientness I so obnoxiously desired now. My father said he bought his as a teenager from an antique shop in Mattawan, New Jersey. He remembered it being dated to 1918, essentially sealing the deal. I came out of retirement and went digging in the eaves once more.
It was a few feet away from my mom’s typewriter when I found it. It sat staunchly in a coat of dust and, as with so much of the skeletal machinery of that period, possessed both a nuts-and-bolts whimsy and brutish stance. It looked mean. It looked heavy. (It was!)
After yanking the typewriter from its tomb, I spent the next couple of weeks researching its origins and how to clean it, occasionally glancing at it squatting near the entrance of my room. The Internet proved especially helpful in this case, as typewriters are a protected species of contemporary romantic living, becoming parlor showpieces and alternative solutions to authors mired in writer’s block. I learned that the Underwood Typewriter Company was once a national symbol of industry and professional creativity, its waning fiscal significance maturing into a revered cultural capital among book-lovers and garden-variety nostalgists. I found a database that helped me date this particular model to 1920, and if my math’s correct (don’t hold your breath) it turns 94 years old this month. Aside from a sticky Q key and broken left paper finger, my Underwood was lovely and ready to be cleaned and fed words.
As an undergrad I was of two minds regarding writing advice that recommended a change of instruments. I understood the rationale, but didn’t think it was central to finding new ideas. Pen or keyboard, my mind worked the same, and I often used both simultaneously. The typewriter changed my mind. After I loaded a sheet of paper into it and began writing, I found its imposing physicality in every keystroke. Punching keys had to be slower and deliberate, even if my words weren’t any more considered than they’d normally be during creative writing sessions. This automatically curbed feeble-minded word vomit, and made the mess of writing a little more of a feisty, measured improvisation. It was very much like performing music, the speed of the machine providing a steadfast rhythm that my chicken scratch would aimlessly skirt around or my electronic typing would zoom beyond while fastidiously self-editing itself.
Typewriting was more playful, providing spaces for my brain to remain collected, even if the ribbon often popped out of the type guide and I was left with an inky, o-and-apostrophe-perforated page of thoughts produced less immediately than those in a bedside notebook. But typewriters encourage through their implicit limitations. Your ink’s spooling away from you, your margins are sloppy, you have to physically rest between your letters and Christ, you sure hope you spelled that last word right. It’s a game, a tactile balancing act that gives form to your words before you strike thunderously and make those words count. My typewriter liked doing things differently, and once I listened it became clear why. After the dance was over, did I find that I pulled better words out of the air or wrote something worth reading? I cannot say. But I look forward to keep working with my typewriter. I suspect it still has a few stories left to tell.
Andrew Marinaccio often scrambles to write things down. Sometimes those things wind up on the Internet at websites like BrooklynVegan and his blog, Disco Cannoli.