“My life was easy and I loved it.”
These eight words are the opening to the heart-wrenching novella Angel Mountain. And it only gets better.
“The glory of the country life is what I looked forward to every day. Perhaps that is why I am the oddball of my family.”
Sentences like these continue for 15 pages, all lovingly crafted in single-space by punching the sticky keys of my father’s 1949 Royal typewriter. I was nine years old. The year was 1974. Now, almost four decades later, reading Angel Mountain is like wading through rivers of swirling sap. See? Even a casual read of it causes me to revert to hyperbolic metaphor. Ugh. But alas, the point of this post is not to bash my nine-year-old writer self, but to extol the glories of the loyal Royal typewriter. Specifically, my father’s Royal.
In a world decades before electronics were even a gleam in the eye of an average family, the old gray typewriter made things look official, uniform, and easy on the eyes. At the time, it seemed to make sense. Instead of sitting down to write out a recipe card, my mother would trek back to the closet of our spare bedroom, pull the typewriter from the shelf, and with both arms wrapped around it (it weighs in at 12 lbs.) carry it to the kitchen table. One by one, she would tuck index cards behind the carriage and slowly roll them until the top of the card appeared. Then, she would carefully and methodically strike the keys. Mom was an excellent typist, which was an important skill for a woman of her era. But she also had beautiful handwriting, and so I wondered, wouldn’t using the pen be quicker? And prettier? It’s interesting how the recipes I cherish are the ones that are written in her handwriting. Later in life, she ditched the old typewriter and went back to writing her recipes by hand. She probably tired of carrying the silly thing to and from the kitchen table.
On Saturday mornings, the old typewriter would make another appearance from the closet for the weekly Sunday school lesson my father prepared. I would hear the keys start clicking sometime in the afternoon when he had fully read, studied, and digested all the scripture passages and commentary from the “quarterly.” Because double-spacing on the old typewriter involved returning the carriage twice, most everything we typed was single-spaced. The finished product was one full page of notes that he would fold and tuck into his Bible for the following morning. (Dad still types his lessons on Saturdays, but now uses an electric typewriter circa 1980-something that is still stored in a closet. That computer we bought him is just too much of a hassle.)
I have a storage bin of writing that came from that old typewriter and the 1980s typewriter that eventually replaced it. But my favorite stories are the ones produced on that loyal Royal. It’s not that they are better. They aren’t. But those stories are intentional. These days I can sit down at my computer and start spewing out anything (which often occurs on this blog) with little thought or worry that I might be wasting paper and ribbon. Even handwriting affords me a certain luxury that allows for thoughts to flow freely as I write. But on the old typewriter, each letter is an act of determination as the sticky keys are pushed down one by one. There is no backspace or delete button, no way to italicize (something is made bold simply by going back over the word again), no spell check, and no option to single, space-and-a-half, or double-space sentences. There is little second chance for a first impression on the loyal Royal. So, in order to avoid too many strikethroughs or paper ripped from the carriage, wadded, and tossed into the trash (despite the dramatic flair), my stories were handwritten first. Then typed. And as I read through my old novellas, I find this shocking. I wrote these poorly constructed sentences and drippy metaphors twice?
Yes, I did. Which is why I can’t throw them away. They stay in the bins, pulled out every decade or so and read with a giant cringe. But I read them knowing that the writing of these stories did not come easy for the nine-year-old me. Or the girl who continued to write this way until college, when she finally was introduced to the computer. I would like to say that it changed my writing life, but only when I was pulled aside on my first internship with the Tulsa World newspaper did my writing life truly change. My editor looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you writing your stories by hand and then typing them into the computer?”
Yes, I was.
“Stop it,” she ordered. “You’ll never be a writer if you waste that much time.”
Since that moment, I don’t think I’ve composed anything of substance longhand. The bunion on my right middle finger is gone. The loyal Royal is forever stored in my own closet. And I type with fury, hurrying my words along so that I can get to the next task. Some days I miss the old typewriter and the little nine-year-old girl who with naive confidence penned the first words of her first novella: “My life was easy and I loved it.” And she wrote it…twice. Although she didn’t know how to hook the reader, she did know how to serve the work of writing. I could learn from that kid.