I doubt that title phrase was ever yelled and the boys in the printers’ union would probably have told the chap making the demand where to put it, but it does have a romantic ring to it. A newspaperman rushing into the newsroom with some really hot story? There no longer are “hot off the presses” stories. Now, by the time the print journalist arrives back at the paper, the television is already broadcasting the story “live from the scene.” Much of the romance of the print traditions has been eclipsed by the efficiencies of the electronic media.
I read recently that the current generation will receive most of their entertainment through visual media rather than the written word. I don’t want to break any techies’ hearts, but before visual comes the written word. Movies start with scripts, i.e., words on paper, and before a final draft, somebody’s fingers will have spent considerable time dancing about the keyboard and manipulating a mouse. I doubt such fundamental elements of creativity will yield easily to some technological shortcut. I can’t quite see a journalist sitting down after an event and “answering” a few key pre-formatted computer-asked questions and have the computer write the story. But who knows! Maybe that sentence will start someone to thinking!
Despite the promise that our world would become fully digitized, people continue to cuddle up with a good book. Indeed, like gas stations of old, the saturation of bookstores may have diminished, but if you take a look at the sales of online bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, hard copies continue to arrive at our front doors. And for those that don’t, they arrive on iPads and Nooks and other electronic replicants.
Behind those doors, writers still tap keys to bring characters and plots to life. Like reading, the physicality of writing is akin to breathing . . . it lets you know you’re alive. There’s something physically and psychologically comforting when you open a book and settle down for a read or open the laptop or nestle into bed with a tablet that let’s you choose whether to read or write.
How words are created has long welcomed new technologies that add efficiencies, or at least alternatives, to the process. But lifting words off the page with your eyes remains solidly the preferred and intimate interaction between reader and story. I might compose a blog on screen, but somewhere along the way it’s converted to print, either for a physical file or as
part of my preferred—and tactile—techniques of reviewing and editing. I’m old school in that regard. I review on screen, make notes on paper, and return to the screen to incorporate the changes. Along the way there might be a couple of printed iterations to fiddle with after simmering overnight on my desk. In my writing world, screen and paper and eyeballs have a synergistic relationship.
Oh how we would have welcomed the modern forms of automation of writing back when we struggled to line up the typing paper and set margins and make corrections without getting the carbons out of whack. That was when teachers demanded perfection and we tried to fudge it all with White Out. Think of the angst that could have been alleviated from our high school and college years had us old farts had the technologies of today to enjoy!
I had an editor at the “Washington Post” tell me that he bought a new typewriter every time a love affair went south. I wanted to ask him whether he had the same machine, one in every room, or a warehouse full, but I decided the question might have been perceived as inappropriate. (I think there may be a stage comedy in the experience somewhere, however!)
All this came back to me when I stopped in at one of the rare typewriter shops that still exist to buy a new ribbon for my Remington 5 portable. (There are no U.S. companies manufacturing typewriters any more. Everything now is antique and the inventory of the mechanical marvels all come from an age passed—refurbished and shined up. The shop resides on a corner in the tony town of Los Altos, CA. The owner didn’t have my specific configuration in stock so I had the messy job of transferring the new ribbon onto the old spool that fits my machine.
In chatting with him, however, I was amazed to discover that there is a continuing market for old, refurbished typewriters—teenagers! Huh!? Why? The shop owner conjectured it had to do with a fascination with the mechanicalness of putting words on paper. Perhaps, too, the special sound a typewriter generates is tonally pleasing. Maybe in the not too distant future, students will be offered an elective course in “scrivernering.” I knew a typographer back in the day who would cut his own goose feather quill pens, just like the ones our Founding Fathers used to draft the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I tried it with little success. I have not tried chipping a paragraph into marble or granite, however.
I doubt that people who are fascinated with words are any less fascinated by the array of alternative means available to put them on paper. We all have our favorite pen, our favorite paper, our favorite place to write, even our favorite lighting. I was amazed to learn how many great (i.e., famous) writers wrote in bed. The closest I get to that is sitting on the edge of the bed to complete a few end-of-day e-mails on my iPad, make a few notes about tomorrow’s intentions, or dash off the seed of some potentially brilliant idea. Otherwise, if I get near a bed I start to yawn. I suspect the old timers wrote under the covers primarily to stay warm.
I suspect, too, that the laptop and tablet technologies have extinguished more writers’ angst than could ever be fully calculated. We can now write when and where and any time we want, and virtually silently, and thus, and more importantly, secretly, and even still more importantly, make our fixes and edits with nary any effort.
Still, there is something magical to see and feel the brute mechanics of hitting the keys of a manual typewriter to drive ink onto paper and create prose. It is a bit like making chips fly as you tap the awl against marble, I suspect, but without the need to wear safety goggles. The other benefit is it slows down and enhances the mental process of converting ideas into print. I’m not a believer in multitasking, but the mind can work a few paragraphs ahead of itself and even keep a broad outline in mind as you type toward the boundaries of a writing project.
So am I telling you to run out and buy a typewriter? Not unless you’re looking for another literary adventure, although it is one I recommend. It’s that I started my journalism career when newsrooms were filled with a chorus of typewriters and Teletype machines. If they stopped all at the same time, the silence was deafening and you would look up to see if the world was about to end suddenly. They produced the sound of news, and the sound was part of the romance of the craft, much like those wonderful 4 x 5 speed Graphic cameras with a shutter you could hear across the room, and used light bulb size flashbulbs, or the sound of a rotary letterpress as it accelerated to full speed. It was a romantic time that felt romantic at the time. I recommend that young writers watch a few newspaper movies to get a sense of it all. To name a few:
What I discovered about journalism is that you weren’t creating tradition but living it. Like the theater’s “smell of the crowd and roar of the greasepaint,” the tentacles of journalistic traditions ensnarl and embrace you. At the end of the day when the paper was “put to bed” and left in the hands of the Linotype operators and pressmen, you felt you had accomplished something. And the real beauty of newspapering was, and remains, that if the end product turns out not as good as you wanted, tomorrow offers another opportunity to make it better.
The same goes for the novelist and storywriter and poet. Every time you sit down to the keyboard is a fresh start. And although technology has made editing and re-writing and tweaking so much easier and faster, you are still immersed in the romance of putting words on paper and painting a story others might enjoy reading.
Writing is a bit schizoid in a way. When you put your fingers on the keyboard you are embarking on a new adventure as well as a trip back into tradition. I only wish I could buy a CD of the sounds of those long-ago newsrooms to provide the mood music, but my fingers have grown to enjoy the light touch of modern keyboards. As you get incrementally better at your craft, the traditions do too. But one thing has remained unchanged—you still need a damn good story to tell. The next question to ponder is what are the elements of good story!