Royal was a little late to the portable typewriter game. They were a major player in the larger standard size machines, but were slow out of the gate on portables. Once they entered the race, however, they quickly became a force to be reconvened with. In this episode, I show they typewriter as I received it, untouched, uncleaned, but still a worthy machine. Don't worry, I plan to clean it up.
Welcome to the Typewriter Tuesday. Here I share a little about the machines writers of a previous generation used.
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This typer is a bit of a surprise for me. Made in 1980 it bears the name of the famous typewriter company Royal, but it was manufactured in Portugal. It represents a a change in typewriter manufacturing. Since the body is made of plastic, I expected the machine to be a bit of a junker. Instead, it's a pretty good machine. Shame on me for prejudging.
This typer came to me in rough shape. That's the bad news. The good news is, it only cost me $15.00. It had endured a some careless treatment (so it seems) and about half the keys didn't work. I took it home, put it on my work bench and had at it. A couple hours later, I had a working typewriter. The work was tedious, but the reward was great. Although plain in appearance, it rocks the work. Some consider this model one of the best machines made. I'm inclined to agree with them.
When a Typewriter and History Collide. This Corona Four portable goes way back to 1925, the year of the Scopes Trial. The Scopes Monkey trial was one of the most covered trials in US history. Over 200 reporters from around the country gathered in the tiny berg of Dayton, TN to report on a trial that is still talked about and debated today. Some of those reporters may have used a typewriter like this one.
The Power of Simplicity. This 1946 has the power of simplicity. It's no showoff. It's more of a lower its head, clinch its fists, and lean into it machine. It's the kind of machine that says, "The time for talking is over. Start typing."
The Torpedo Bluebird is one of my favorite portables. Sleek, easy to use, German engineering and manufacture makes this machine sing. This is a machine for serious (and fun) typing. Amazingly quick, almost impossible to out type. And it is no where nearly as dangerous as typing on a real torpedo (something I don't recommend)..
The 1948 Remington Rand De Luxe represents some of the best in typewriter engineer. Although almost 70 years-old it still looks almost new. It is sleek and durable. This typewriter came to after a chance meeting with a stranger. Sometimes it pays to get out of the office.
The Brother Charger 870 is a fascinating little machine with a specialty keyboard that could be used by English, Spanish, and German speakers. It also represents the shift from high-end craftsmanship to down-and-dirty, inexpensive production. It's fifty years old but still a fun machine.
A favorite among writers of the last generation, the Olympia SM9 brought the best of German engineering to the world of typewriters. Stylish, rugged, and most of all, dependable, the SM9 became the typer of choice for many well-known authors. Almost half a century old, this machine thumbs its nose at passing decades. It can handle any typing task and look good while doing it.
The typewriter that makes you say, "Vroom! Vroom!" A midcentury typewriter with all the optimistic design of that era. Space age in appearance, it is a work horse. It's a great machine and maybe even a greater piece of art.
It's Typewriter Tuesday and today's beauty is a 1957 Smith-Corona Silent-Super portable. This model is a favorite among typewriter collectors and is the same model used by Dr. Suess (Theodore Geisel) and novelist Donald Westlake. Enjoy.
I ONCE HAD A VISION. No, not the biblical kind, but something my imagination does from time to time. A mental movie played in my brain . . .
I opened the door to my bedroom. Everything was just as it was when last I left. The old, worn dresser stood near the same wall it always had. The bed sat opposite it, its forest green and maple headboard drew the eye of anyone who entered. The bed, however, was different. It was occupied by an old, white-haired man. His skin draped a nearly skeletal face. His eyes were closed.
The man rested on his back, his head deep in an indentation in the pillow. The only movement he offered was the slow, shallow rising and falling of his chest. He drew air over chapped lips. It was clear he was in his last days, maybe his last moments.
I stepped to his side. What was this old man doing in my bed. His face had a familiarity about it. Something about the eyebrows; something about the mouth; something about the snow-white beard that hung as limp to his face as his skin hung to his skull.
I looked away for a moment, half expecting to see Death standing at the foot of the bed, his scythe poised and ready to take its prize. But he wasn’t there. The old man and I were the only people present.
The old guy moved his lips, struggling to say something. He clinched his closed eyes as if the effort required the last of his strength. Clearly he had something on his mind.
I leaned close and placed my ear near his mouth. At first I heard nothing but labored breathing and the occasional puff of breath. Then words:
“I wish . . . I wish I tried . . .”
Then he was gone.
His last words were words of regret, words or remorse for something never tried, for something he deemed too difficult or too impossible. Now, with his days of opportunity gone, he could no longer dream of what might be, but only of what might have been.
I straightened and looked at the old gent’s face, his skin now a death mask. That’s when I realized something that should have been obvious: his face was my face.
What had the old man wished he had tried. Since he was me and I him, I should know. There were several things I wanted to attempt, several projects I longed to do but never started. I could only see failure in the effort. If I didn’t change my thinking, I would become the old man who wished he had tried.
Al’s Axiom #4: The saddest words spoken by the dying are: “I wish I had tried…”
What do you wish you had tried. Regret may follow failure, but the most painful regret follows the decisionto never try.
THIS WEEK ANOTHER UNDERWOOD, but one that is very different than last episode. Meet the dolled-up Underwood Portable from 1930. It's black and gold make it an eye-catcher and one of the prettiest typewriters I've seen. See what you think.
A GOOD NUMBER of years ago, several decades actually, my wife Becky and I were planning a trip. We wanted something to help us pass the time in the car so we checked out an audio book from a library. (I told you this was a long time ago.) We stumbled on it and, since it was a wacky Stephen King short story we were eager to hear it. “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” was first published in the May 1984 magazine Redbook, then added to the 1985 collection of King’s stories published as Skeleton Crew. The tale didn’t disappoint. Becky and I still talk about it. It is one of our favorite King tales.
Mrs. Todd is a young woman obsessed with shortcuts. She’s always trying some rarely traveled road to see if it will cut a little time and miles off her trip. She soon discovers that there are shortcuts that defy physics. Soon she’s traveling a road that is shorter than is possible. Something else is happening: She is getting younger. Of course, such a road needs a bit of drama. Things, abnormal things like trees and bizarre animals, live along the road. One critter that looks like a rodent with a head full of poison, gets stuck to Mrs. Todd’s grill. It appears that the road works like a wormhole but comes with a set of unique dangers.
Fun story. We all like a good shortcut. We like to get where we’re going faster and with less miles traveled. When it comes to our work, we often look for, “a better way” of doing it. Yep, even we writers like to work faster. Except, like Mrs. Todd’s famed shortcut, there can be dangers and other unwanted nasties. Taking shortcuts can lead to disaster. We don’t want a surgeon to take shortcuts (pardon the pun), or a dentist, or our auto mechanic. No, what we want is a proper job, not a rush job. Don’t get me wrong. There have been technological advances that have helped creatives ply their trade more efficiently, but writing still takes time, planning, and maybe even some trial and error.
Quality work takes more time and effort than subpar work. Often cutting corners requires more time spent fixing things than times spent doing it right. (Don’t ask how I know this. My answer would require revealing dumb things I’ve done.) The question should never be, “How fast can I do this?” but, “How well can I do this?”
It is good to also remember that creative work is played on an uneven playing field. Yesterday you may have cranked out your work like a madman and felt good about it only to plod along today like a man with lead tennis shoes. There’s no one to blame for that. Life is lumpy. Work is lumpy. Creativity is lumpy. Sometimes ideas come so fast we’re certain we’ve advanced to the rarified air of creative genius, only to have reality slap us back into our place by forcing us to trudge forward like a herd of turtles.
Seek quality output. If it comes easily and fast, then great; if the arteries of creativity are a little clogged, then continue on. Keep moving forward. Speed is secondary. Quality is eternal.
LAST WEEK I shared the Royal Eldorado--the model of typewriter I used in high school and collage. This week I show off an Underwood Touchmaster Two, the style of of typewriter I was forced to use in junior high school typing class. I had no use for typing and boldly claimed that I would never need to know how to type. After 50 books or so I can safely say, I was wrong. Really, really wrong. This typewriter has a different kind of beauty. Enjoy.
THE CREATIVE'S MAGIC QUESTION.
MAGICIANS HAVE their “Abracadabra” and their “Presto change-o” to engage their magic. What magic words do creatives have? There is such a phrase for those of us who conjure up stories, fine art, scripts, nonfiction, and more. It’s just two words: “What if . . .?”
I know it’s not a complete sentence and so it seems a out of balance, but those two words have kick started thousands of creative minds to conjure up something from nothing. I’ve built a career (such as it is) asking “What if?”. Every story, book, invention, and the like use “What if” as a key to get into the creatives mind. The rest of the creative act is spent answering that question.
Every novel builds on the “What if?” question. What if someone cloned dinosaurs? became Jurassic Park in the mind and hands of Michael Crichton. What if there was a lawyer who took on impossible murder cases and always got his clients off? Earle Stanley Gardner answered that with over 80 Perry Mason novels. Then someone asked, “What if we turn those novels into movies and television shows?”
Henry Ford asked “What if I could make an affordable horseless carriage?” He asked, he acted, and he succeeded in creating one of the most successful products and business in history.
Every writer I know asks, “What if?” At first it’s, “What if I tried my hand at writing?” Then comes the idea which is born of the “What if?” question. Almost every step in the process—from the origin of the idea, to the plotting, to the writing, to choosing a publisher (and the publisher asks, “What if we publish this book?”) comes from “What if?”
Some “What ifs?” can be dangerous and need to be filtered out. “What if I try and fail? What if my work earns nothing but rejection? What if someone laughs at me? What if my work is published and it flops?” All of these are possible, and every author deals with them. Such is life.
The key is choosing which “What ifs?” you want to dwell on. Fear tries to get us to focus on failure. I do know the answer to one “What if?” question. If we ask, “What if I let fear win and never try anything great?” The answer is obvious: nothing happens.
Here’s another Al’s Axiom for free: “Only those who attempt achieve anything.”
How do you recognize a good “What if?” question? It’s simple. It won’t leave you alone. It haunts your mind. It’s there just before you fall asleep and when you wake up. You never drive alone because the “What if?” is in the seat next to you. Someone is talking to you, but all you hear is “What if? What if? What if?”
Here’s the thing about that magical two-word question: It breeds more “What ifs?” and that’s good. That’s how stories are made, inventions are created, and medical advances made. Ernest Hemingway asked, “What if a fisherman is considered too old to do the work anymore? What if his community considers him a has-been? What if the boy he’s been charged with teaching to fish is taken away? What if he sets out to prove himself? What if he sails out too far and no boats are around to help him? What if he catches the biggest fish of his life? What if does the impossible and lands the fish and ties it to the side of his little boat? What if sharks come and try to eat the fish. What if he returns to his little community with nothing but the stripped carcass of the great fish? What if he feels like a failure again? What if others see what’s left of the great fish and realize the old man can still to the job?”
One “What if?” gives birth to others. Let ‘em breed like rabbits. That’s what leads to creativity.
So, what’s you “What if?”
Today we take a look at my first typewriter (actually, it's a match to my first typewriter, not the one with all my youthful fingerprints on it), the 1962 Royal Eldorado portable. Just looking at this thing makes me feel young again--sorta.
The number one reason budding writers fail to publish is fear.
“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
—FDR, Inaugural Address of the President, Washington D.C., March 4, 1933.
The quote above is one of the most famous lines uttered by a president. Franklin Deloro Roosevelt uttered the phrase during his inaugural address on March 4, 1933. (The Twentieth Amendment changed the inauguration date from March 4 to January 20, a practice that came into effect in January of 1937 and continues to this day.) It’s a memorable line, but there’s more to it. The full sentence reads: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Fear is a powerful force. It nails our feet to the floor when we so want to march to our future. It dissolves resolve, erodes commitment, and dilutes dreams. Some of the top things we fear is death, public speaking, and rejection. It’s that last one that trips up creatives of all stripes. The thing about being a writer, or painter, or actor, or any other kind of artist is that we expose ourselves to rejection. And rejection stings. People tend to avoid things that sting.
For about six years I served as the director of a large writers conference that met each year in North Carolina. It had many enjoyments and a few disappointments. My greatest disappointment came when I learned that most conferees would not send in a book proposal even though an agent or editor asked for one. Why? They got cold feet.
Don’t take my words as judgment. I get it. I sail the seas of fear frequently. I have a personal motto, a mantra I have to chant from time to time. It comes in the form of a one-sided conversation that I have with myself. It goes like this: “Al, shut up and send it in.” (I’m pretty blunt with myself. What am I gonna do—beat myself up?)
I continue to teach new and upcoming writers. Lately I’ve been wondering if I should design a class to help nervous writers put a little steel in their spines. It was while teaching a class on writing the novel that I formulated my first and most frequently cited Al’s Axiom: “No one ever hit a home run from the dugout.”
There it is: truth wrapped in a pithy saying. A baseball player is not a baseball player until he comes out of the dugout. When he steps to the plate him might get a hit, but more times than not he won’t. If a batter has a .300 batting average he’s consider a solid player. A .300 average means, however, that he only got three hits out of ten visits to the plate. There are strikeouts in the future of every player, and there are rejection letters for every writer or other creative. There are also some home runs too.
You can’t be a working writer if you don’t submit. I can dress in a baseball uniform, but if I don’t come out of the dugout, then I’m just a guy in a baseball outfit.
Grab a bat and come out of the dugout.
I'VE BEEN COLLECTING manual typewriters for awhile now. It's an addiction that began with the belief that every writer should have an old typewriter around as a reminder of how things used to be done. Okay, there may be no logic in that thought but it works for me. As I began collecting I noticed that there were other people like me who love these old machines and I've learned a great deal from them. Now, I want to share my addiction, um, compulsion, no, um, hobby. Yeah, that's it. Hobby. So I've declared the second day of the work week "Typewriter Tuesday." Each week, I will present a short video (less than three minutes in length) featuring a typewriter. I hope you enjoy it.
Ninety-one years ago this week a pivotal event took place in a tiny berg called Dayton, Tennessee. Here two famous men went toe-to-toe on an issue that has divided the country for decades. That event is often called "The Scopes Monkey Trial," and what happened from July 10-21, 1925 still reverberates in our society.
Unfortunately, there is more misunderstanding than understanding about the trial. A stage play and a movie, Inherit the Wind, have created a worldwide misconception about what went on during those hot July days. When writing my book 30 Events That Shaped the Church (Baker Books, 2015) I chose to dedicate a chapter to the Scopes Trial. At the time, I knew the event was important but had done little research on it. I gathered information and soon was captivated by the situation, the time period, the characters, the issue, and the impact the trial had on the United States.
What few know is that the "Trial of the Century" was nothing more than a misdemeanor, a low level crime just a hair more serious than an infraction. Yet the case went international. John T. Scopes, a little known high school teacher and coach, volunteered to be the defendant in a trial case funded by the ACLU to challenge the Butler bill. The Butler bill, a new state law, made it illegal to teach that humankind evolved from a lower form of life. It also made illegal to contradict the Genesis account of the creation of humanity. Governor Peay signed the bill stating his belief that it would never be implemented. He was wrong.
I've continued my research into the Scopes trial and have learned many fascinating things. One incident is at the heart of my newly released short nonfiction, Unspoken: The Scopes Trial and the Final Speech of William Jennings Bryan. Here's the blurb:
Three time presidential candidate, reformer, publisher, former secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan looked forward to delivering the prosecution's summary in the trial of John T. Scopes. It was one of the reasons, perhaps the major reason, he served on the prosecution in the "Trial of the Century." The speech was never given in court. Clarence Darrow and the defense team out maneurvered Bryan. The "Commoner" would die five days later, but not before placing the speech with a publisher who printed and distributed the work shortly after Bryan died. The speech and the book were Bryan's last words to the world about education and evolution. Now, almost a century later, author Alton Gansky takes a close look at Bryan's last speech and reflects on the man, the trial, and the unspoken speech.
The e-book is available today at Amazon.com and will be available on other e-book carries soon. There will be a print book available in one or two weeks. I've priced the book at $2.99.