If Hemingway Could Do It …

Hey all. Gerry Boyle here, and yes, he did. Hemingway, I mean. And so did Fitzgerald. Edith Wharton. Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. They sat down at the keyboard and pounded the keys.

I’m talking about writing at a typewriter, as in the old manual machines that once filled newspaper offices. That war correspondents carried in little black suitcases. That my father used to write hundreds of eloquent love letters home from his ship in the South Pacific during World War II.

I got this particular machine a few weeks back from my friend Lorena who lives in Richmond and has squeezed a lot of living into a few decades. Lorena is the real deal, and she likes the world of my books. My rookie cop Brandon Blake? Lorena knows the toughest Portland streets. The back roads of Jack McMorrow’s Somerset County? She grew up there. My corner of Maine? She’s lived it and breathed it, baby.

After we’d corresponded a while Lorena offered me one of her favorite possessions: a Royal Arrow portable typewriter that used to belong to her grandfather. She said I should have it because I’m a writer (though she’s one, too). The last time we met up we had a great chat and she presented the typewriter in its neat black case. I took it home. It meant more to me than a royalty check.

So the Royal Arrow sits in my study, next to laptops and monitors. And it wasn’t long before I decided it was more than a objet d’art (which it is). The Royal Arrow is a lean, mean writing machine. This was how writers did it before they went soft. Soft like us.

I say this having tried to actually write on the Royal Arrow. I found actual typing paper. I fed it into the roller. I whacked the return lever a couple of times. I started to type.

You have to know what you’re writing on this machine. No diddling around, cutting and pasting. No moving paragraphs around like puzzle pieces. Type at your own risk. Don’t touch that key—until you know what that character is going to say.

It’s a challenge and then some. I started my writing career on a Smith Corona electric that’s now somewhere out in the barn. Wrote the entire first draft of my first novel, DEADLINE, on that whappity-whap machine. Could I do it again, spoiled rotten by years of Apple products? In a power outage? An ice storm? I don’t know.

So as I type this the modern way, monitors glowing, errant letters and words vanishing before my eyes, I have renewed respect for the old masters, who thought long and hard before they set words to paper, who wrote and typed with a conviction and finality we can’t, and don’t need to, match. I’d like to think so. In fact, I’ve tried a few pages, pounding the Royal Arrow keyboard. It takes more than finger muscles. More than hands and wrists. I feel like I need to do push-ups to get in shape for typewriting. After a few words fatigue sets in.

So how did Hemingway do it, tapping away until he’d produced all that wonderful dialogue? How did Chandler write those descriptions of Los Angeles? How did Dame Agatha construct those intricate plots?

One key at a time. And the bell going off at the end of very line.


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6 Responses to If Hemingway Could Do It …

  1. thelma straw says:

    Yep, it’s always one key at a time… one line at a time, one page at a time… I heard Mary Higgins Clark speak once about her trepidation in writing a novel… you sit and watch the pile of pages, one page at a time, go from one pile to the other and feel like you’re walking on a tightrope! Thelma in Manhattan who loves Maine Crime writers!!!!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    One thing I’ve discovered, on the rare occasions recently when I’ve typed on a manual typewriter, is that it takes a long more finger strength to get those words down on paper.

    Stronger hands and fingers? All the better to strangle you with, my dear.

    I took typing at Union High School, all those many years ago, and looking back I wonder, thinking of college papers, whether we had to have our thoughts more organized when a mistake meant retyping the entire thing?

    Maybe this explains Hemingway’s brevity and spare prose? But it sure doesn’t explain Faulkner.


  3. Gerry, I wrote my first four published books and a whole bunch of bad novels that no one else will ever see on a manual typewriter with carbon paper. What I write now is sooo much better. In the old days, when making a change in chapter one meant retyping the entire manuscript, it had to be a really crucial change to make the effort worthwhile. Did I mention the carbon paper? Now I love revising, and have no excuse not to do as much as is needed.

  4. John Clark says:

    One of the illustrations in my mother’s book, From The Orange Mailbox depicts Miss Badger, our beloved lab/beagle mix, eying a mouse perched atop keys on her old manual typewriter. Mom generated a lot of our survival $$ using that machine back in the 1950s and ’60s. If that were the only way to create a book these days, I’d probably take a pass, It certainly did take a lot of thought and patience to turn out a finished manuscript on one of these. On the other hand, I bet a guy named Moses would be thrilled at the upgrade potential in such a machine.

  5. Jerry, this is a delightful post. I learned to type in high school, too. My mother was a secretary. Boy could she make those keys fly, and she was accurate! Me not so much. :)My first book, VERMONT ESCAPE, would not be coming out this summer from MuseItUp Publising if I had to write on the old electrics much less those standards we had in high school! I’ve heard a James Michener quote: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” Thank heavens for cut and paste. And by hand? Get out a here! No way. Love y’all’s blog. I’m a huge Maine fan. Will be making my fifth trip to Maine this fall.

  6. JT Nichols says:

    I wrote my first couple of plays, longhand. When I typed, it was editing. Now I use a pc, editing as I go…sometimes I think that having to write a whole draft, before editing at all, has a different, possibly stronger effect on the entire unit…

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