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"Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety."

--T.S. Eliot, letter to Conrad Aiken,

Aug. 21, 1916

Old habits are interesting.

I am trying to write this column in a new office, on a computer I've just set up to access the Internet and connect to our newspaper's web-based "platform-neutral content-management system." Over the past 20 years, I've probably created more than half of the content I create for the newspaper at home, and until a couple of years ago I had an office dedicated to the purpose.

Then more and more, as our laptops got more portable and our Wi-Fi got better, I started writing in our sun-room, across the table from where Karen would write and edit stories on her laptop. While I still maintained my home office--I kept files, books, a printer/scanner and camera equipment in it--in reality my laptop became my office. I'd take it with me on the road. I've written columns on it in hotel rooms.

Then, a little over a year ago, I stopped taking my laptop when we traveled. Instead, I started carrying my iPad. Which was a big change because I don't really write on the iPad. The touchscreen doesn't give the sort of tactile feedback I need, and while I know there are accessory keyboards I could use, I wore out an Apple cover/keyboard combination fairly quickly and can't get the iPad to reliably connect to the third-party Bluetooth keyboard I somehow acquired. So I rarely write anything longer than an email or a few notes on the iPad. If I need to write something more substantial while I'm traveling, I borrow Karen's laptop. But mostly I try to arrange my life so I don't have to work while I'm traveling.

For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, it matters whether I work on a laptop or a desktop or a typewriter. I've known quite a few writers over the years who wrote everything out in longhand on foolscap. The poet Miller Williams did this, and so did my former Democrat-Gazette colleague Michael Leahy. I'd be completely lost if I had to work that way. I haven't written more than a paragraph or two by hand in decades. (I can think of one exception: A few years ago, for academic reasons, I wrote a four-page essay in longhand. It hurt my head, but I got it done.)

I'm a hunt-and-peck typist and have written that way since high school--one of my favorite gifts was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter my parents gave me when I was 16 to replace the acoustic model I'd been clacking on for a few years. I don't type or write very fast, but the rhythm inherent in typing is important to the way I write. For writing is all rhythm. It's all beats--long and short and run-on soliloquies. I feel a piece in my fingers first.

"Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts," Friedrich Nietzsche wrote to his friend, the composer Heinrich Koselitz, after Koselitz suggested that the adoption of the typewriter had made Nietzsche's work more dynamic, with something of the "iron" of the machine showing through in the prose.

"Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom," Koselitz wrote to Nietzsche, noting that his own musical "thoughts" seemed to "often depend on the quality of pen and paper" on which he set them down.

Jack Kerouac famously perpetuated the myth that he composed the first draft of his novel On the Road on a continuous 120-foot scroll of paper because he typed so fast that changing pages felt too disruptive to his flow. (The scroll exists, but On the Road was born in Kerouac's journals; it wasn't spontaneously composed.)

But On the Road is a typewriter (and Benzedrine) novel. You can feel the staccato drive, the momentum building and ebbing. It's different, punchier, than something that flowed from a pen.

The first newspaper stories I ever wrote composed on a typewriter. But since the early 1980s, I've worked mostly with electronic characters on screens--and there's a different feel to that, too. Revisions are easier, so maybe more is risked.

Change any number of variables and you get a different kind of piece. When I'm working at the Democrat-Gazette, there's generally a pleasant hum of distraction that I need to tune out. I put on headphones, usually not to listen to anything but to slightly mute the burble. I compensate for the quirks of my overworked desktop by saving often and working in a different browser than the one that's always open to run fact checks. (If I happen to write a series of words I'm particularly pleased with I'll copy and paste it into the search field, bracket it with quotation marks and Google it to make sure I'm not just recalling somebody else's darling.)

There are lots of interruptions at the office, but I like that. I often work on two or three ideas at a time, and the keyboard I use there has a particular plasticky clack to it that's distinctive from the softer yet more solid feel of the laptop's keyboard or the firmer, almost industrial feel of the Apple MC184LL/B Wireless Keyboard I'm using right now (and which, idiot that I am, I just realized I could pair to my iPad).

I'm sure I write differently on all these devices. So I'm sure I'll write differently in this new room than I did at our old house or at the office. There's a pecan tree outside this window; in a few months there'll be a new house on the empty lot I'm looking at now. I'm getting light from three directions here; my old office only had a western exposure and deep eaves. These things affect me, even if I can't say for sure how.

It's not so strange. I play every guitar a little bit differently; some fight you a little harder than others, try to force your fingers into different patterns. Sometimes it feels like trying to push the like poles of two magnets together, sometimes it feels likes turning on a tap.

But I've gotten to the end of the first one. We'll see how it goes.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 04/23/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Hunt and peck


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