The moment I decided to acquire a typewriter arrived as I stood in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, looking at this Olivetti Lettera 22. It was on display as one of the key design achievements of the 20th century.
Back in Sydney, I picked up this Lettera 32, a later model designed in the 1960s.
I felt encouraged by the fact that Cormac McCarthy uses this typewriter, since literary greatness inevitably rubs off on any aspiring writer whose machine matches that of a critically acclaimed novelist.
In 2009, McCarthy sold his Lettera 32 for US$254,500, with proceeds going to scientific research. His replacement typewriter, also a 32, was bought for US$20 (see The New York Times article here).
I decided that my new typewriter was going to help fix my writer’s block. It wasn’t going to cure the condition on its own but I knew that having to type without the comfort of a delete key would help subdue the debilitating perfectionist tendencies that had kept me producing nothing for so long.
Each time I sat down with my Olivetti, the rule was to type at least one full page of fiction without stopping. I wrote a lot of crap but, in other news, the crap looked really cute coming out of a typewriter and I sounded furiously productive bashing away on those keys. Also, the writer’s block has vanished. Now I mainly use my laptop for writing but my trusty Olivetti is still there for the days I can’t get started.
Type Horses: Writers & Their Typewriters
Below is an introduction by Zoë to the philosophy behind her exhibition and the techniques she used to create the artworks on display. This video was produced by The Powerhouse Museum for the Sydney Design festival and is included here with the Museum’s kind permission.
Some details from the exhibition:
One of Zoë’s artworks featured the typewriters of several different writers. Here are some details from that piece:
Accompanying the artwork were short descriptions elaborating on the relationship of each writer to his or her typewriter. Zoë has generously shared some of those descriptions with me for this blog post (Cheever’s is my favourite):
Determined to make a living as a writer, each morning Cheever would don his good suit and hat, ride the elevator to the windowless basement of his apartment block, strip down to his shorts and hammer away with two fingers at his typewriter. At lunchtime and the end of the day he put the suit back on to ride the elevator back up to his rooms.
Hansen Writing Ball
In one of his last letters Nietzsche writes of his typewriter: “This machine is delicate as a little dog and causes a lot of trouble—and provides some entertainment. Now all my friends have to do is invent a reading machine: otherwise I will fall behind myself and won’t be able to supply myself with sufficient intellectual nourishment.”
Accepting a Golden Globe for the Brokeback Mountain screenplay: “Most heartfelt, I thank my typewriter. My typewriter is a Hermes 3000, surely one of the noblest instruments of European genius.”
Royal Quiet de Luxe
Sexton quotes her youngest daughter saying: “A mother is someone who types all day.” The Awful Rowing Toward God, the title of her eighth collection of poems, came from a Roman Catholic priest who told her “God is in your typewriter.” In her poem ‘The Room of My Life’ she considers the typewriter, amongst the other objects that surround her:
in the room of my life
the objects keep changing
Ashtrays to cry into,
the suffering brother of the wood walls,
the forty-eight keys of the typewriter
each an eyeball that is never shut…”
Joyce Carol Oates
At 14-years-old Oates was given her first typewriter by her grandmother, Blanche. “I rarely invent at the typewriter but recall what I’ve experienced. I don’t use a word processor but write in longhand, at considerable length. (Again, I know: writers are crazy.)”
The Type Horses workshop
I also attended a workshop that Zoë held as part of the exhibition on 31 July.
I was excited to see in Zoë’s collection a cult favourite of typewriter fiends: the Olivetti Valentine.
Our first task was to type a letter to the machine we happened to be working on.
Mine was a love letter to this Hermes Baby.
Horribly drafted but here it is, followed by my response to the next task: a 6-word story about the little Hermes.
We also had fun with Exquisite Corpses, an exercise invented by the Surrealists in the early 20th century. Our version of the exercise involved three people writing three different parts of a story. One person wrote the opening lines and folded the page over to leave just the last line visible for the second writer, who then wrote her part and left the last line of that visible to the person finishing the story.
Here was a tale I began, which is based on an idea I’ve had floating around for a month or two about a one-dimensional character called Mona who has made a career out of hijacking stories. I should make a proper start on it soon.
Zoë kindly agreed to an interview for this blog about herself, her exhibition and her typewriter love.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I’ve always identified myself as a ‘bookish’ person. When I was growing up I loved to write and draw, and for a long time I feared I’d have to make a choice between the two. Happily, I ended up as a designer in book publishing – initially in-house at Allen & Unwin and now as a freelancer. In 2010 I completed my doctorate on hybrid novels – novels in which graphic elements (photographs, drawings, experimental typography) are used as narrative devices. Following that I’ve stayed on teaching in the Design School at the University of Technology, Sydney. I divide my time between drawing, writing, researching and teaching. I’m in a very good place!
What inspired this exhibition?
Type Horses is a follow on to an exhibition I had earlier this year at the DABLAB at UTS, called Hand Writing. That was about how writers and designers use pens and pencils in the early stages of the creative process. I am very interested in process, and I find writers are the most articulate of creative types when it comes to talking about their process. Discovering that some writers still write on typewriters – David Malouf, Cormac McCarthy – I got curious about their relationship to these ‘archaic’ writing machines.
How many typewriters do you own? What brands and models are they? How did you come across them? Were they expensive? Do you have favourites?
I own 9. I found my first one at a garage sale in Erskineville about 6 years ago. It’s a 1930s Underwood that doesn’t work but I love it. I have a red Olivetti Valentine that my friend Karl swapped me for a bird drawing. It’s exactly my favourite red, and I will never part with it. The other 7 I bought from eBay. They were between 20 and 50 bucks, but then you add about that again for postage and they’re not as cheap as they first sounded… There’s a dark grey Hermes Baby that I like to type on most, and a powder blue number that my friend Craig fell in love with, so it lives with him now. The rest hang out in my office at work, and sometimes I make ‘still life’ displays with them for my students to draw.
Do you use a typewriter or typewriters in your creative process?
I did for this exhibition, but otherwise no. I just like the look of them.
Why do you think some writers have such special relationships with typewriters, as opposed to computers? Is it just technophobia?
Perhaps, but I think also it’s because typewriters are writing machines. They don’t email, or play music, or auto correct your grammar. You can’t copy and paste, and editing is slow. They just transcribe what’s in the head, onto the page.
Do you have any favourite stories from your research about writers’ relationships with their typewriters?
Hemingway used to write standing up, his typewriter on a book case. Paul Auster’s friend Sam Messer became obsessed with his typewriter and started visiting it when Auster wasn’t home, and painted it for several years before they turned it into a book (‘The Story of My Typewriters’).
Did you visit any writers to draw their typewriters?
No, I tried to visit David Malouf to draw his typewriter, but he didn’t respond to my emails or letters. I hear he is quite retiring, and a stranger asking to come to your house and draw your typewriter is admittedly a bit weird.
Did you meet many visitors to your exhibition who expressed the same love for typewriters? Did they tend to have characteristics in common? For instance, were they writers, artists, serial hipsters? For what reasons did they use typewriters?
I was surprised how many people reacted with such strong affection to the typewriters. There were a few people who said they had and used typewriters, but mostly it was nostalgia about learning to write on a typewriter or watching a parent/grandparent typing. One boy, probably about 12 (I’m not very good with kids’ ages) came in two days in a row to sit and write stories on the typewriters. The second time, his mum took his brother to the park and he stayed for almost an hour typing a story, totally engrossed.
Now that your exhibition is over, what are you going to do with your collection of typewriters?
They all have homes, in my studio at my office and Craig gets to keep the blue one.
Where can we buy prints from your exhibition?
(N.B. Zoe also sells artworks and T-shirts here.)