When I was 4 years old, I dictated my first book to my mom — a 12-page epic about a bear who went on a road trip — and I have been obsessed with the art of storytelling ever since. Everywhere I went from then on, I would compose little narratives. I collected notebooks and obsessed over pencils and any medium I could use to express myself.
Some time later, on a rainy summer afternoon, I fell in love. Sure, there was an age difference. The object of my affections was a little older then me; we got looks, but we didn’t care. I was in love with a 1939 Underwood Ace, a beautiful relic of a time that seems so far away to the Internet Generation I grew up in.
In its heyday, The Underwood Typewriter Company was one of the most well known manufacturers of manual typewriters on the planet. Millions of them came off the assembly line every year. In a world before the personal computer and the word processor, it was the only way to write. But the reign of he typewriter was short. In the 1960s, Underwood was bought out. In 1974, the first personal computer, the Altair 8800, changed the way people wrote forever. And in 2009, seventy years after it was built, I discovered it in the corner of a dusty bookshop for $30; abandoned and forgotten by the digital age. I couldn’t resist the temptation.
For me, this typewriter is not an antique. It’s a time machine that connects me to the great writers of the past: Crane, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Whenever I get stuck on a project, I open up the case and type for a while. I’m not sure whether it’s the click of the keys or the aroma of ink and mildew, but it seems to stimulate my creativity. With the typewriter, there is no way to delete a mistake. It forces you to choose your words precisely and commit to them and there’s something freeing about that, in a roundabout way. Using it has made me a better writer. I have learned about word choice, sure, but it has also taught me about tired fingers, about the agony of going back over typos with White-Out, about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and about annoyed roommates.
There aren’t any more manual typewriter factories in the United States and just one company that still makes the ribbons. I don’t know anyone who uses a typewriter anymore and I admit that there are weeks and months when I neglect it and prefer to work on my Mac, but there is a simple beauty to working with it. I don’t have Facebook to distract me or printers to worry about. Just me and the page.
My typewriter means a lot to me. It’s nostalgic, but it has also helped me grow and change as a mature writer. I’ve come a long way from the crayon illustrations of my first book, but I have never lost my passion as a storyteller and my Underwood keeps me connected to my roots and to a long tradition of writers with very sore fingers.
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Just because I’ve embraced the past, it doesn’t mean that I’m tech-illiterate. Quite the opposite, actually. If you’re hip to the Interwebs, follow me on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.