Re-typing Papa

The Olivetti when she was young.

Our intern Tom took a day to Feed, with an Olivetti and Hemingway for company…

I’d typed little more than a paragraph when the Olivetti ran out of ribbon…

As a young copy boy at Time Magazine, Hunter S. Thompson would skive off work to re-type F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway to try to learn their style.

True to the task, I’d woken early and fixed a good breakfast of fried eggs on granary toast, orange juice and white coffee. When I finished I went upstairs to the back room and sat down at the desk and began to type. I told myself that I would work until lunchtime. After that I would take a walk down into the valley, across the stream in the woods and go up the little path toward the moors. If it were still warm when I got back, I would sit outside in the lower garden and read the news and have a drink of something. But first I was to re-write The Old Man and The Sea.

I looked up at the half page of type, where the letters incrementally faded, then reappeared again hard and vivid from where I had punched at the keys. I had no Tipp-Ex and the page was full of mistakes; misspellings, omitted spaces, an underscore where there should have been a dash. All I had to do was copy the damned thing. As Truman Capote had said, ‘that isn’t writing, it’s typing.’

I couldn’t replace the ribbon, but I was not going to be put off. The old man of the story would persevere against the elements, with or without the boy to help him.

So I decided to use the computer, but I would only use it to type. I would not copy or paste. I would not delete or highlight or spellcheck. I would switch off the internet. I would not rush, I would type slow. If you type too fast on an Olivetti the arms clash and grind and lock together.

 “If I re-typed Hemingway for 10,000 hours could I become a chess-like grandmaster of Papa’s style?”

 I typed hard, staccato-like, imitating the clear sharp impressions of each letter upon the page. I read the words aloud and repeated them, listening to the inner music of the lines.

As I re-typed the first few pages…

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now finally definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.’

       …I listened to the clicks of the keys, the coalescence of the words and their sound and image, the slow rise and fall and hush of each line.

When a person first learns guitar they find songs they like and they sit up in their bedrooms playing them over and over. A single riff they play hundreds of times. Their fingertips become calloused; their joints increasingly supple until the progression of chord patterns is no longer something semantic or acoustic, but procedural and instinctive.

Could the same be achieved with writing? By retracing exact configurations of text, could a typist’s hands learn the innate rhythms of another’s prose? If I re-typed Hemingway for 10,000 hours could I become a chess-like grandmaster of Papa’s style?

[CTRL] as an [ALT] to [DEL]

When you make a mistake on a typewriter, you must then remove the paper and Tipp-Ex it. After it dries you realign the paper against the margin, slide it in and crank it back into place. It’s a pain in the ass. You dread mistakes and curse when you make one. It is strange though; you begin to value them. You start learning not to make mistakes. You construct the sentence in your head, polish it and then only when it is ready do you transcribe it to print.

Think. Think again. Check. Write.

Writing is shown to be a complex interaction of multiple, sequential tasks. The mental and physical acts of writing cannot be simultaneous. Like the arms of my Olivetti, our cognitive processes clash and obstruct one another. We make mistakes.  On my Olivetti mistakes become a visible part of the process. But the computer’s delete key has changed this. It seems to have rewired our brains. We think now that a mistake does not matter, because it can be corrected, erased, forgotten. I fear that we are not learning from our mistakes. We edit, revise, cut and paste without leaving a single trace of how something came to be. We lose the story of creation and in doing so we risk losing our understanding of the form.

For writing to be clear, then thoughts must be clear. If you do understand entirely what you mean, your reader will not. It is as simple as this:

‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’

Hemingway claimed to edit pieces up to 200 times. Each minor alteration or crossing out remained there like a photo of a former self.

An early draft of A Farewell To Arms

Mistakes are like the compost from which the plant grows. Otherwise, our working can become Jenga-like, a teetering Babel-esqe structure missing foundations, full of gaps.

As Hemmingway’s former tutor, the poet Ezra Pound famously instructed:

The poet sees an image and has a reaction to it.

The poet presents the image as vividly on paper.

Then, without being told how to react, the reader reacts to the image in the same way as the poet.

Like the keys on my Olivetti, the process is slow, take one step at a time.


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