It all started while I was walking along 18th street in Chelsea. I was just minding my business and enjoying New York City’s famous summer heat, until I saw it — a pretty pink typewriter! Yes, it was just sitting there in the store window like the famous cliched doggie. Coming out of its top, a notice that the machine was on loan from Gramercy Typewriter. Gramercy Typewriter! Wait a minute, I thought to myself, there’s a typewriter store here, in New York City, in 2012? And you thought the typewriter was dead!
To make a long story a little shorter, yes, there was indeed a typewriter shop. I found the father and son operation a few floors up on Fifth Avenue. There, I would find many more beautiful, vintage, and fully refurbished, manual typewriters. Cutting the story down a little further, I ended up buying one — an Olivetti Lettera 22. No, not the pink one. For those of you who don’t read up on your typewriter history, this famous little manual won various design awards in its day and was the favourite machine for writers such as Leonard Cohen and Sylvia Plath. Punctuated by its famous single red key, it’s small enough to travel and big enough to do some serious writing. Cohen wrote his first book on one! After a long, and very friendly, conversation with the shop’s owners, Paul and Jay Schweitzer, I was off with my “new” typewriter.
So I have a typewriter. What’s all this about, you ask? Where’s the connection to the classroom? Ok, relax. I had to tell my story first. So it goes. The connection is this: I think every English language arts classroom should have a manual typewriter. Now, you probably think that the New York heat is getting to me, but wait. Give me a chance to explain.
The reason I bought this little gem in the first place is because I’m a writer and I wanted more inspiration and less distraction. I thought a typewriter might do that for me. I wasn’t wrong. Connecting with the keys in a physical way, hearing the clack, clack, clacking of my words taking form on paper and not having email popping up, or a game of solitaire on the side, has, in fact, done my writing wonders already! So why not have my students (and your students!) experience the same thing? Would it not be good for teenagers to get away from the computer — for them to write without the aid of “artificial intelligence”? Imagine, no spell check! You’re bound to get a “bref” overview of their skills now, rather than a “grief” overview of them, but hey, change is good. Interestingly, I noticed one old Olivetti advertisement online which featured a student combo — an Olivetti 33 with a bonus dictionary, for a limited time, of course. Imagine, the bonus item was a hard-bound dictionary, another thing students should reconnect with these days.
So, yes, I think students would do well to experience the charm of writing on a typewriter, of facing a blank sheet of paper, silence, and the dusty pages of a Funk and Wagnalls dictionary. Who knows, they might write the next contemporary masterpiece! Or they may never write another thing. Either way, you will have given them an experience that is not only fundamental to the history of creative writing, but a good reminder that some things are entirely mechanical, no power, just the skillful stroke of our own little fingertips — a skill that is quickly becoming extinct. So extinct, I expect most children to merely tap a typewriter key and then sit and stare in utter amazement at the fact that nothing happened. But we know something did happen. Something magical. Something most kids will likely never forget.
– Sent from my Olivetti Lettera 22.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Ernest Sweet
Michael Ernest Sweet is an award-winning educator, writer and street photographer. He divides his time between Montreal and New York City. And, he owns a typewriter. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2012 issue.