the wordsmith and his hammer.


The typewriter in the picture above is Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti Lettera 32.  He bought it in a pawnshop in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1960, and he has banged out every piece of fiction he’s written since then on that little sea-green manual typewriter.  Apparently, it’s finally showing its age (after five million words or so), and the author is allowing it to be auctioned off to benefit a scientific research organization.  Christie’s Auction House estimates that the old Olivetti will fetch between $15,000 and $20,000 this Friday.

As far as objects go, it’s just like any other Lettera 32 ever made—a quality piece of craftsmanship, to be sure, and one that has been popular with typists for its easy portability—but we tend to imbue special objects with special meaning.  I have my grandparents’ wedding bands, for example, and they have far more value to me than the dollar value represented by their gold content.  That Olivetti, scuffed and worn-out as it is, has been used to write some of the most significant pieces of American fiction of the last forty years, including “No Country For Old Men”, and “The Road”.  Like the article says, that gives the machine an almost talismanic quality.  (Honestly–if you could pick between Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti, and one just like it from some guy on fleaBay, wouldn’t you pick the machine that drummed out all those novels?)

Like many writers I know, I’m deeply interested in process.  I am fascinated by the many ways writers get the words down on paper.  No two writers alive have the exact same process, and writer quirks are legendary.  Hemingway wrote at a typewriter, standing up in front of a bookshelf.  Neal Stephenson writes his monster tomes by hand, on loose leaf paper, with a fountain pen.  Truman Capote wrote lying down on the couch, with a pencil, after a drink or three.  Shelby Foote wrote his multi-volume magnum opus on the Civil War with a dip pen, because he liked the way it slowed him down and gave him time to think.  Neil Gaiman wrote Stardust in longhand to capture the Victorian feel of the era in which his story was set, and apparently liked the process so much that he’s written all his subsequent novels by hand as well.  Some writers write early in the morning (Anthony Trollope got up at four o’clock every morning to write before work), some write late at night, and some work from dawn to dusk and write entire novels in weeks. (Isaac Asimov worked that way, on a pink IBM Selectric typewriter.)

I can spend hours on web sites dedicated to writers and their process.  The Guardian has a series called “Writers’ Rooms”, where British authors show off their work spaces.  (I think Roald Dahl had the coziest and most eclectic workspace of the bunch.)  Photographer Kyle Cassidy has a similar project called “Where I Write” that features American SF and Fantasy authors.  Writer Damon Young does a blog series called “The Write Tools”, in which he interviews various Australian writers about their process.  Some write longhand, many use the computer, and a surprising number still work on typewriters.  Work spaces run the gamut from the desk in the kitchen corner to elaborate backyard writing shacks and spacious lofts and offices.  I have my own process, but I love reading about other writers’ ways and methods, and sometimes I learn a new trick or two for myself that way.  (For a while, I borrowed Neil Gaiman’s method of alternating pens with differently-colored inks every day, so I could see at a glance how much I got done on any given day.) 

For the longest time, I held the opinion that process doesn’t matter, as long as you get the words down on paper.  Looking at all the different ways people use to get those words down, however, has made me rethink that statement.  If process didn’t matter, everybody would use the least time-consuming and most efficient way to get things written—the computer loaded with a word-processing program.  The creative process, however, isn’t about maximum speed or efficiency.  If a certain process is more pleasurable to you than others, or you’re simply more comfortable with it than with other methods, then you tend to write more as a result.  If Shelby Foote enjoyed writing with a dip pen, the dip pen was the right tool for him, and the multi-volume book he cranked out that way is proof of that.  Could he have written it more quickly with a computer?  Possibly, maybe even likely.  But it’s also possible that writing on the computer would have been enough of a burden to him that he never would have finished his books. 

Like I said, the creative process is a weird and not at all logical thing.  Whatever works, works…and what works for me may not work for you at all.  It’s fun to look over other people’s shoulders and see how they like to put their nose to the grindstone, though.  You won’t be able to write just like Cormac McCarthy just because you buy a Lettera 32 off eBay, or like Neil Gaiman because you use the same pen filled with the same ink, but the tools of creation have their own magic, and we tend to link the tool with the created art, and the master artist who used one to make the other.  In doing so, we recognize the magic inherent in the act of creation, and we look for just a little bit to rub off on us.


13 thoughts on “the wordsmith and his hammer.

  1. tweev says:

    I have a question that can most probably be answered by people who wrote or still write with typewriters: How does one avoid that words get wrapped somewhere they are not supposed to wrap? Like in” somew-here”.

    Do you have to predict how long the word will be and if it will fit in the remaining space between the current position and the right edge of the page? I could imagine that I’d be off easily 2 or 5 characters in that prediction and thus to be forced to wrap the word somewhe-re.

    I am not a fiction writer, but I write often and a lot for my studies and I thank everyone involved in the creation of the hard- and software I’m using that I don’t actually have to worry about this stuff and that I can easily make copies of my works so they will never be lost. I just love computers! Ok, that’s it. Sorry for the deviation.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      There’s a little bell that dings on most typewriters when you get close to the right margin, about 5 to 8 characters before you hit the margin. That lets you gauge how much space you have left for your current word or sentence.

      Should you hit the margin anyway, most typewriters have a “margin release” that lets you override the hard margin and squeeze in that extra letter or two, at the expense of margin space on the right side of the page.

      • tweev says:

        Thanks for the answer. I guess the probability that a word will not be wrapable within the last 5 to 8 characters is almost zero. Still this sounds awfully inaccurate. I think it happens that the user of the typewriter breaks the line or wraps the word too early, that there would fit another letter or two and now it’s all ugly and imperfect! I couldn’t bear that… I guess that’s some sort of Rain Man thing going on there with me and typesetting. Once more I thank Donald Knuth for TeX, always producing the very best of typeset, so I don’t have to be calmed down by Tom Cruise all the time, telling me that “it’s okay”.

  2. Isaiah Kellogg says:

    Imbue. That’s the word.

  3. Tam says:

    I can only write when my Excuseatron 5000 is working perfectly, and it’s always in the shop.

  4. Jay G. says:

    Glad I’m not a writer, because all I use is whatever craputastic PC is available to me…

  5. LittleRed1 says:

    I prefer a computer for prose, because I like the speed and forgiveness. My memory problem (if I were a computer you’d say that I’m a bit short on RAM) makes longhand prose very difficult. With the keyboard and screen, I can type as fast as my thoughts run, and then go back and clean up the clunky places. On the other hand, I can’t write poetry on the computer, because I need the feel of pen on paper and the slowness.

  6. NMM1AFan says:

    So does that explain why McCarthy’s books don’t have any quotation marks in them?

    Just askin’…

  7. perlhaqr says:

    (Honestly–if you could pick between Cormac McCarthy’s Olivetti, and one just like it from some guy on fleaBay, wouldn’t you pick the machine that drummed out all those novels?)

    Well, I dunno. If the choice was also $15,000 vs: $50, I’m pretty sure I’d pick the cheap one. 🙂

  8. Horace Smith says:

    Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward Angel, was reputed to write standing up with a pencil on butcher paper on top of a refrigerator. Editing his work was a nightmare.

  9. Have you heard the BBC interview with novelist Lionel Shriver about this same topic? (it is chapter 4 of the broadcast)

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