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.