My Life in Typewriters: On Becoming a Writer 2

Lives change, as I said in my previous post on this continuing thread. (If you haven’t read this, you might want to skip over there and see where this blog series begins.)

Yes. Lives change. I was a stay-at-home mom and a freelance kids’ fiction writer from the late 1950s into the early ’60s, living in a little house outside of Danville, IL. When my husband took a job at the News-Gazette in Champaign, we moved there. I decided to take one or two courses at the university and somehow turned into a full-time student with a major in English and a minor in Russian, of all things. (Full disclosure: I got in the wrong line at registration, wound up in a Russian class, and loved it.)

Over the next couple of years, as I took more English lit courses and typed dozens of papers a semester, my idea of a career changed. I wouldn’t be a mom/writer when I grew up. I’d be a mom/college-English-teacher. Which meant grad school, which meant another move, this time to UC Berkeley–luckily, on a Danforth fellowship that generously paid my out-of-state tuition and living expenses. (And I do mean serious luck. The fellowship had previously been available only to men. I was among the first group of Danforth women since the 1930’s.

For this twenty-something who grew up on a tenant farm, Berkeley in the late ’60s was a mind-expanding experience. Really. Can you imagine? The Haight-Ashbury, flowers in your hair, miniskirts and boots, Beat poetry, the Jefferson airplanes, anti-war protests. I loved it all, and especially the intellectual life. Libraries, classrooms, coffee shops on Telegraph, bookstores, books, books, and more books.

Grad school meant more papers. I traded the clunky old Royal for a portable Olivetti that allowed me to type faster and stop worrying about carpal tunnel. It might have been a mini machine, but oh, it was mighty. Typing faster produced more mistakes, but by that time, smart people had invented both correction tape and correction fluid (you could get high sniffing that stuff). I wrote constantly, and read when I wasn’t writing.  The kids and I (there had been a divorce) tucked ourselves happily into a 600-square-foot apartment in the graduate village, near the San Francisco Bay. When the windows were open, we could hear foghorns off Alcatraz and Angel Island. We could also hear our neighbors’ typewriters and smell their rich Korean and African and Jewish cooking. The children’s friends spoke a polyglot variety of languages. The costumes and customs of the village residents were magically diverse.

As was Berkeley. The University Avenue bus took me up the hill to the campus and the astonishing Cody’s Books and  Caffè Med on Telegraph, where you could always find a pot of hot Earl Grey and a Scrabble game in progress.  West on Shattuck was the new Chez Panisse, just opened by Alice Waters. The Albatross (the oldest pub in Berkeley), was only a few blocks away from the graduate village, and I hung out with friends there when I could afford a sitter. I picked up part-time teaching at the University of San Francisco so I would have something to enter under “employment” on my vita. The kids and I hiked in the hills on Saturdays. I learned to sail and spent Sundays on the water. I settled on some forgotten 12th- and 13th-century manuscripts for a dissertation topic, honed my research skills, and dug in to write the blasted thing. I loved it all. I loved everything. I didn’t want to leave.

But yes. Lives change, and I couldn’t loiter in grad school forever. I began looking for a job, and by the time I finished typing the dissertation (produced through many revisions and multiple drafts on that sweet little Olivetti), I had one. It was a difficult era, nationally, and college teaching jobs were scarce as hens’ teeth. Scarcer, really. I felt lucky to land at the University of Texas at Austin. We moved there and I started a teaching-administrative career that took me through the next dozen years.

I kept on writing, of course. The dissertation became a book, amazingly still available. I partnered on a translation of an important Russian literary study. I wrote lots of articles: the kind of thing academic writers write for about a dozen other academics to read. (The more detailed your research, the smaller your audience.)

By that time, I had ditched the Olivetti for the best typewriter I ever owned, an IBM Selectric. Remember that model? It had interchangeable font balls, a correcting tape, and a simply magical keyboard touch. I adored it. On it, I produced three books, a bundle of articles, and course syllabi, notes to students, and letters to colleagues across the country. (Remember letters? Those things we used to write to friends before email?)

And yes. Lives keep on changing, and then change again.  After a couple of decades spent writing all that academic stuff, I lost my enthusiasm for it. I was impatient with faculty and university politics, and teaching wasn’t as much fun as it had been. I began to think nostalgically about the pleasures of writing fiction and working at home. About the possibility of writing (instead of teaching) for a living. That had been an option back in the days when I was freelancing, hadn’t it? Was it possible now?

It’s a cliché to say that there was only one way to find out. But there was. Only one. I went for it.

And we’ll get into that later.




53 comments on “My Life in Typewriters: On Becoming a Writer 2

  1. 120 wpm, OMG, Marybeth! But that was a remarkable machine. Our fingers could just fly. Yes–the longer I stayed at the university, the more burdensome the political maneuvering felt. Others (mostly the men) could view that as just part of the game. But to me, it seemed to become the whole game, and it took the joy out of that world.

  2. San Fran in the 60s: I wouldn’t repeat it, but I wouldn’t have missed it, either. When I think back. I sometimes feel lucky to have survived. You have a Selectric still? Lucky you!

  3. Amazing, when we think back on it, isn’t it, Shirley? How much change we’ve lived through and adapted to, without giving it a great deal of thought.

  4. 90 wpm! Lady, you are a phenom, in my book. I did well to crack 70. Loved that old technology but I wouldn’t ever go back to it.

  5. Love PD James, Virginia! My favorites: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin. Wish she’d gone on with that character! So proud to be shelved beside that accomplished writer!

  6. Amy, thanks so much for this. You are the reader I write for, who finds in books not just a way to pass the time and ease the stress of a complex life, but a way into the world of ideas.

  7. Hi, Susan! I recently found three of your China books at a library book sale (in CT — one of them signed!) and now I’m hooked. I had a long drive recently and bought one of the audiobooks — what a delight that you’re the reader!
    I have been delving into your website and blog and love this backstory to your writer’s life. I’m a single mom in grad school (history) who wrote for my career in the past and hope to have time to do it again! You are an inspiration.
    Anywho, in a stressful world climate I am feeling so thankful for the sanctuary of books you have created; I have been so comforted and delighted by them! Cheers!

  8. You know, sometimes reading this blog is ALMOST as much fun as reading your books. 12 of which are sitting in my living room bookcase right next to P D James. You are in good company. I am saving them all for my two grandaughters.

  9. I remember throwing the carriage on a Royal typewriter on which I learned to type. Even now I can hear the bell ring and then see the paper rise on the cylinder as I struggled to hit 60 (90?) perfect words per minute.

    The IBM Selectric is also evocative of struggle – the ball inside the machine writing advertisement to help launch my husband’s art business.

  10. I learned to type in high school on something that looked like that Royal. With my short fingers, it was a real pain. I did a lot of untangling knots of keys. For either a birthday or Christmas My parents gave me a manual Smith Corona portable. I had that for several decades, even while I had a few fancier machines. I never owned a Selectric, but I remember using one a few times, maybe in a library. Much nicer than a manual. I owned an electric typewriter for a while that had a memory that held one line that could be reviewed and corrected before printing. All of my writing group started getting word processors, but I held out until I could afford a computer, because I wanted to be able to do more than type.

  11. Ah, the dear old Apple IIC — 16K of memory, gray screen displaying green, purple, and white dots. If you were at UIUC, did you work on the PLATO system? I did, in the Language Learning Laboratory — my introduction to computers. Nowadays no one seems to remember how many of its features anticipated today’s technologies by decades!

  12. I enjoy these posts very much, Susan. So much of life is the luck of timing, and you were certainly in the right place, Berkeley, at the right time. What a wonderful, enriching experience! I do regret missing San Francisco in the ’60s.
    But it’s fun to know that we share a love of the best typewriter, an IBM Selectric. Mine was in red, and is still stashed in my studio.
    This blog series is such a good idea. Looking forward to more.

  13. It is meditative, i think, Linda. My computer keyboard is so silent–I often play Baroque music (brisk tempo pieces) just to prompt my fingers.

  14. Oh, yes, Virginia. Flowers in my hair, skirts up to here, barefoot. We watched a documentary on Woodstock recently, and I just had to laugh. But oh, it was fun!

  15. Virginia, I think there is more travel and changing work situations in the early years, as young profs move in search of promotion and more compatible institutions, especially in the sciences. Technology has made so many changes in all fields–must be a huge challenge to keep up with it.

  16. Your second PhD program probably made a more lasting contribution to your life, Charlotte, than mine did. My topic (unlike yours) was so limited and narrow. The most important thing about it, for me, was learning to do serious, sustained research (which I still love). The second most important thing was getting it done so I could get on with the rest of my life.

  17. You’re welcome, filkferengi. I think I type faster on the computer keyboard, but I miss seeing words on paper. And there’s a certain inconstancy about words in pixels–so easily changed! Lots to think about here.

  18. There are a gazillion old typewriters online, pegmar. You could probably find yours–or at least a photo of it.

  19. You’re right, Karen. That machine was substantial–especially for a typist coming from that little Olivetti that served me during grad school. Did the Selectric ding? I don’t remember.

  20. That was really short-sighted of your high school, Barbara! A college-bound kid needed typing even more than calculus or French. (IMO.)

  21. At the time, Jan, I’m afraid it was my favorite class. I always wished for a typewriter at home–now, just look at the multiple keyboards the kids have. But I wonder: is typing still taught?

  22. Caroline, I’ve worked in a newsroom, but I remember the sound of typing class. What a joy. Wish I’d taken the trouble to thank Mr. Brooks for what he taught me. (Too late now, I’m afraid.)

  23. At the beginning of second-wave feminism, lots of women felt that typing relegated them to the second class. I’ve always felt that it could (and did) liberate us, Sherrey. And yes, those Selectrics were amazing. Wish I’d kept mine!

  24. Work of Her Own was important to me, Nancy. I needed to figure out that part of my life, and writing is the way I sort through things. Whatever our work, we are all members of the career culture that rules our society. Nice to hear from somebody who remembers that book!

  25. Loved this. As a kid, I taught myself to type on a manual machine my mom had at home, but we had Selectrics in my high school typing class. At one point I could do 120 words per minute. I finished a Master’s in English, which I’d started with the idea of a Ph.D. and a teaching career, but the degree took so long and wrung me so hard that I was happy to stop there and stay in the administrative career in International Education that I’d begun alongside. I’ve always resounded with your comments on the politics of university work, and have been grateful and fortunate to retire from the state of Texas. Grateful for you and your work.

  26. Thanks for posting this part of your adventure. I wondered how China’s life mirrored yours. I wanted my kids to stay in their school system so stayed local for my education. I have moved several times for jobs but never across the country. I am very thankful for computers and digital books and great reference books like Wikipedia. I brought my encyclopedia with me for each move before I had access to the Internet. I read Work of Her Own back when I first discovered you, Susan, and your herb column. I read it and believe it was also available back then in audio form on tape.

  27. Carolyn A , I learned to type from a big chart at the front of the room at a business college – ugh. I loved ditching the carbon paper, correction fluid years later.

  28. I learned to type on a Royal manual machine in high school. The keys didn’t have the letters on them. There was a big chart at the front of the room. Over the years I used various typewriters as you did. Now I am on the computer which I love. No carbon paper or correction fluid. I do miss the “ding: of the bell at the end of a row and throwing the carriage bar back, but features on a computer can’t be beat.

  29. You have just paid homage to my favorite typewriter of the ages, the IBM Selectric. I sat amazed at the changing font balls, the invention of correction tape, and that beautiful touch you mentioned. At the time, I was working at Vanderbilt Medical School in the Anatomy Department, a single mom seeking a good life for my son. Instead of typing my own dissertation, I typed journal publications, dissertations for grad students, and the occasional paper for a researching medical student. I’d dreamed of writing on my own and during these days of typing for others, the seed inside me germinated and I determined to keep that dream alive. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Susan.

  30. I appreciate the convenience of my I-Pad but still love typewriters! It’s the feeling of accomplishment as the words flow and the sometimes staccato rhythm. I spent 40 years working in radio and TV newsrooms and there once was a special sound from all of the reporters clacking away, working on stories. Now, the silence can be noticeable. Love your books and the blog!

  31. Thank you for taking us along on your journey! Turns out we were in the same neck of the woods at the same time. I worked in The City (San Francisco) where I typed all day on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, and lived in Kensington in a house with 4 other young people. I loved traipsing through Tilden Park on the weekends! Ah the days of yesteryear!

  32. Really enjoyed typing class in high school, the 1960’s. The IBM electrics were truly a workhorse. Much faster than the manual typewriters which I started out on. .

  33. My experiences were more of begging people to type my papers. When I was in high school – the early 60s – those of us on the college track didn’t have room for typing class. The school didn’t think we would need it because we were going to be “professional women.” Computers saved me. Even I can type pretty well two-fingered and there is always spell-check. How the world has changed!

  34. I learned how to type on an IBM Selectric. Though I don’t miss the annoyance of making corrections, I do miss the sound of it. It felt so solid, so real.

  35. Loved reading this – shades of our youth! Mine in similar pursuits in Denver in the late 60s. Wonder what happened to that old typewriter…

  36. I typed on every one of those typewriters, as a clerk typist in college and at many different jobs trying to earn a living as a student’s wife and, later, a single mother. One of my typist jobs was in San Francisco in 1960-61, heavily pregnant, I am so jealous of your experience. I was there, but only on the fringes. I remember a pub called the Honey Bucket (really!) and some great music. Close, but not close enough. Thanks for your story.

  37. Me, too! More, more, more – please Susan! My PhD came much later in life; in fact, I reached ABD stage in one EdD program only to drop the ball completely and then start anew in another PhD program years later when I finally realized that lifestyle changes had to come first before I could write that paper. I wrote on gender differences, a fascinating topic that focused on problem solving. Do the genders do it differently? You be they do!

  38. I really enjoyed reading about your travels in writing and teaching and the etceteras from Champaign to Texas and IU to UT. My daughter and her husband went the reverse way after heading out of Ohio to Texas to Illinois and now to Vanderbilt in Tennessee. Academia isn’t a career one would expect to involve much traveling, but it appears it does.

  39. As an undergraduate (Bryn Mawr, AB 1960), grad student (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, PhD 1982), teacher and researcher (till I retired 2007), I worked on every one of those typewriters! I typed my husband’s PhD dissertation on a borrowed IBM Selectric. I think I’ll recognize where you’re going in the next chapter, too!

  40. Reading all of this reminds me about my typewriting days! Something about that tap tap sound is meditative in a way. I can’t wait to read more!!

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