Monday, April 6, 2020

The Memory Trigger

My last post, The Writing Medium, explored how different ways of writing stirred up different moods and feelings depending, in part, on the tactile sensation of how we write. I ended that post with a teaser comment about typewriters and how that is another subject. Indeed, I hope this discussion shows just how we, as writers, connect to our medium on more than one level.

That beautiful memory-maker
The first time I got to use a typewriter on a regular basis is when I was eight. It was an ink-and-ribbon Royal typewriter, which would be one-hundred years old now (and sits prominently on my bureau). It was a cold, cranky piece of metal that I loved. As and eight-year-old, I had no need for a typewriter, but it fascinated me so I would roll in some paper and just type things. Not productive things like my spelling homework - just words, notes; anything I wanted to. To me, there was a power in pressing down on this antique lever, hearing the squeak of every joint as the great invention popped a specific mark onto my paper. A simple performance in the mechanical symphony - I was hooked. However, all dreams end. Eventually, the ribbon broke, I got older, and the typewriter became a footnote in my life. But the mechanics still fascinated me.

Roll forward to typing class in ninth grade. My life outside of school was a turbulent mess - family dysfunction, an exceptional amount of teenage angst, and so on. However, this was also the dawn of the home computer age, and I knew to excel in that, one needed to know how to type. So I took an elective typing course. It was not on a computer keyboard, but a heavyweight IBM electric. You know the type - bulky, rounded blocks of Detroit steel with a loud, squeaky cooling fan taken from a 747, all with that motor's constant hum and that spinning ball with every character waiting to whip around and tap into the paper. For those fifty minutes in typing class, I could try and escape my life and drown myself in the joys of typing. I typed faster and with more accuracy, and by the end of the course I didn't want to leave. However, I had to leave, and the whirlwind of my life waited outside that classroom. Whenever I type on those old typewriters, I feel like I am on a small, safe island, but I know the tide is rising and I have to start swimming soon enough. I have that feeling to this day.

In high school, my father brought home an old Smith-Corona cartridge typewriter from work (I still do not know if his work place knew about this). He wanted me to do my homework on it, and it was the best gift ever. It was lighter and more portable, an elite machine that quietly hummed, the keys just nudging their mark onto paper. It was a machine that worked with me, accepted me, and was light enough for me to carry into any room of the house. I would usually type in the same room as my father so he knew just how much I appreciated it. I think sometimes he would've preferred peace and quiet, but instead he embraced the happiness of his child. I think that's the last good memory I had from the days of living with my father, and the sound of those portable typewriters brings me back to that pleasant moment in time.

I could go on about every different computer I worked with, the different keyboards, their sounds, feelings, or how they help me recapture moments. The important part, however, is that sensory cues are like time machines for the reader. A vivid description of a sound such as the margin bell on a typewriter will transport the reader to a special place. The mere mention of the smell of ribbon ink can send the reader to their own private moment. Not every detail needs to be examined - I offered nothing about the color or smell of my past typewriters, but I included the part that meant something special. And in that, the description does what it is meant to do - bring the reader into the moment.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, my views of my writing tools are more impersonal. Skip feel and smell; give me efficiency. My favorite typewriter was a hybrid and my high school graduation gift. There was a small, single line LCD screen where you could scan and correct your mistakes before hitting enter to see them typed out on the paper.

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    1. But even that intimate description creates a moment - it connects object and image with emotion, so it works.

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