Can I have an N, please, Bob?

September 8, 2008

In case you’re interested in the results of the NaNo time trial, these 468 words took a little over 20 minutes to produce. Assuming a constant workrate, that makes a full NaNo about 40 hours of work.

It was as if I’d stumbled on El Dorado. It started as a flash of dull green somewhere between the many decaying boxes of my mum’s attic – a dull green I half-recognised but couldn’t immediately place. I tunnelled my way betweeen boxes of stuff – hoarded stuff, stuff too ancient to be of any use ever again, but too close to someone’s heart to throw away. There are boxes of 1980s computers up there, books on how to mend long-obsolete motors. And there was a typewriter.

In the brilliantly cruel way my mum’s attic has of kicking you when you’re down, the typewriter came back into my life the day somebody left – she being a girl (now a woman, of course, do the maths) I’d had a crush on for the better part of two decades. The typewriter and she were originally part of my life at the same time, more or less – on the roller, there are a number of obtuse declarations of desire, there in black ink on tipp-ex.

I used to write everything on the typewriter – letters, essays, songs, diaries, abortive attempts at novels (I plan to rectify that this November – this ramble is partly a NaNo time trial) – and then, at some point, I got a proper computer and abandoned it to the loft.

It was a lucky find. The case had a sticker on it marked 50p, almost certainly implying that my mum had unsuccessfully tried to offload it at one of her many car boot sales. It’s not in great shape – the fabric that used to cover the case is patchy at best, the N and G keys are – actually, no longer missing, I just shook the machine and found them – but even when replaced on their relatively blunt stands, tend to fall off within a handful of keystrokes.

For all its flaws, though, it’s a marvellous machine. It smells of journalism and epistolary novels. It sounds a little like a train when it’s being used properly. It takes a genuine effort to press the keys hard enough to make a mark on the paper, and some coordination to avoid jamming several keys together. Somehow it brings you closer to your writing, knowing that it’s relatively difficult to delete paragraphs wholesale, and knowing that the typewriter is going to be responsible for about as many misprints as you are (the space bar is a little shaky, occasionally printing two spaces, sometimes none at all).

Above all, the typewriter is a machine designed solely for producing words on. A computer has a thousand functions, each further removed from writing than the last. There’s no pinging e-mail on this, only the ping of reaching the end of a line. There’s no internet dragging you off to research obscure rock bands. It’s like being in a ’60s newsroom, and almost makes me want to start smoking.

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