Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Today's essay was to be about typewriters...

and how I miss them.

Thirty years ago (OK, 35 and counting) I had an already old portable on which I did all my school papers and, in order to keep supplied with funds for beer and pinball, other peoples' papers as well. I may have charged 50¢ a page; my memory is fuzzy on the point. Possibly as a direct and proximate result of the beer consumed with my earnings.

On the day before a paper was due, I would begin thinking about what I might write. When I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, I'd begin typing. Inevitably, about the middle of the first page, I'd reach a spot where I'd need to cite, and quote extensively, from some authority supporting my position. At this point I would go to the campus library.

It is a bald-faced lie that I had to ask for directions. Despite what you may have heard.

It is true that I did not go to the library very often. The campus library was a very depressing place. Actually, it was a nice-looking building, with modern wings surrounding a more elegant, older core. Somewhere in there, if I recall correctly, there was a nice lake view.

But it was depressing nevertheless because one could not avoid, upon entering the place, feeling the tension. All these pre-meds gathered together, cramming for some life-changing chapter quiz in Bio 124 or -- if they'd made it past that first, drastic cull -- Organic Chemistry, tended to contribute to an overall atmosphere of near-despair. They weren't studying together, these pre-meds. No, mostly, when they looked up from their notes or their books at all, they'd eye each other warily, searching for some confirmation, in the faces of their fellow pre-meds, that the others were equally baffled. Naturally, they all became practiced at not letting anyone read their emotions. Eventually, the ones who made it into American medical schools learned to suppress their emotions entirely.

I exclude from this number the ones who became osteopaths. At least some of these were normal. Well, collegiate normal....

Anyway, the campus library was no place for a sensitive soul to linger. And I, with as sensitive a soul as anyone, in my own opinion at least, had no intent to loiter. I would head for the most promising shelves (after all, I did know what the paper was supposed to be about) and grab an armload of books. Then I would return to my room and my waiting typewriter.

I'd pick a book at random from my stack and begin paging through. With luck, I'd quickly find some paragraph that arguably supported my opinion. The length of time to find just the right passage varied, unfortunately. Whenever the elusive words were found, however, I'd copy them into the paper -- giving, of course, due attribution and proper citation. Then I'd bang out a few more paragraphs and reach for another book. I would repeat this process until the paper was long enough to meet the requirements of the assignment.

There was no "rough draft." What I typed, I turned in. I did use Wite-out strips (I believe that was the brand name) and I used them liberally. But I seldom tore a page out of the platen and crumpled it. There was ordinarily not enough time for that kind of artistic flourish.

Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- I usually did fairly well on my college papers. True, some professors hated my writing style. On a scale of Hemingway to Faulkner, I was very much a Hemingway. (And I mean this strictly in terms of sentence length and complexity, please!) Some professors, those who'd strolled too long in the grove of Academe, again in my opinion, liked sentences that wandered around the block and got lost looking at the clouds. Others, though, really liked my style -- even going so far as to praise its organization. Obviously, I did not share my writing secrets with these fans.

Readers of this blog will also note that I seem to have lost any penchant for for short, pithy sentences that I might have once possessed. That's what the law will do to you, friends.

But I was reading on the train last night and I got to thinking about those far off days and my battered portable and what I called 'combat writing.' By this I meant writing at the very last minute and pushing myself to physical extremes to accomplish the task at hand.

This part of my style has very much survived into my law practice.

Indeed, I have an appellate brief due in a medical malpractice case in (as of today) 15 days. The common law record stretches to 45 volumes -- and then there are many, many more volumes of transcripts. And I've only begun to scratch the surface of this assignment. The panic is beginning to surge within me -- not enough to keep me from writing this post, you'll notice, but still.... And there's an amended pleading due today that I truly intended to do last Friday... but I didn't have what I needed from the client to get it done until this week. And there are two new notices of appeal to get out. And I'm waxing nostalgic over some crumby, beat-up, old typewriter?

In the storage room-cum-closet of my Undisclosed Location there sits an IBM Selectric. My office mate uses it from time to time to fill in forms. I used to be a Selectric virtuoso, a master of squeezing a six letter word into a four letter space in order to avoid retyping a page. But for all my pretended affinity for the good old days of Wite-out and banging out pages, I almost never touch that typewriter.

So why the wistful reminiscence of days long gone by disguised as an ode to a portable typewriter? It's just that, in those increasingly far-off days, my body was equal to the tasks I made it perform. My tasks are bigger now, and my body weaker. I wish it were otherwise.


Steve Skinner said...

I agree about the correlation between task size and body readiness!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Do firms still make typewriters?

Empress Bee (of the High Sea) said...

well i'd leave you a nice comment but then you'd have to stop to read it and that wouldn't be good. so i won't.

smiles, bee

Dave said...

Kindred spirits, or slackers if you will:

"When I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, I'd begin typing. Inevitably, about the middle of the first page, I'd reach a spot where I'd need to cite, and quote extensively, from some authority supporting my position. At this point I would go to the campus library."

Our methods differed in that I wrote it out long hand as an essay, took it to the library, found someone that said what I had, made notes on my "source," then went to the SCM portable and banged it out.

I used to have strong fingers.