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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Another One of My Big Ideas

I guess it was about a year-and-a-half ago that I came across a website used by a prominent (by current standards) radio dramatist to put forth his pronouncements on the medium and the craft. Among his many rules, he had specifically admonished the neophyte radio writer to avoid submitting any script to any producer of radio theatre that was typed using a manual typewriter. Now, the first thing that struck me as funny was the thought that anybody (including me) was going around sending out scripts typed on manual typewriters. I just couldn't see that as being a common problem.

The second thought I had was that this might be something of a short-sighted policy. I mean, there are well known authors who compose on manual typewriters. So, I e-mailed the Prominent Radio Dramatist and asked him if he would reject a script from, say, Gore Vidal or Don DeLillo because they used manual typewriters. He replied in the affirmative. I don't think he knew who DeLillo was, but I do, and I'd take a script from him if it were written on a napkin with a crayon.

And in that exchange an idea was born. Figuring that, after two or three series, I'd probably be getting burnt out on churning out scripts for "Next in the Series," I thought that maybe I could do a season called "By the Manual" in which I solicited scripts from authors who work on manual typewriters as well as throw in a couple of my own. In addition to Vidal and DeLillo, I know that Ian Frazier uses a manual. And now I've found out that Bob Dylan used one to write "Chronicles, Vol. 1." I have a couple of other names scribbled down on a slip of paper somewhere, and there's plenty of time to collect more.

Now, as a result of the postings on an earlier thread here, I'm toying with the idea of including the proviso that the scripts, in some manner, deal theme of technology and how it affects us. Other than that, the authors would have a free hand.

Sometimes an interesting idea can arise simply from wanting to give the finger to someone who seems like a pompous ass. And for that, I will always be grateful to the Prominent Radio Dramatist.


Robert G. Margolis said...


Chronic P.R.D. can really give a guy brain cramps, can't it. "Rules"!? Aren't they made to be broken, anyway? I don't even know these "rules", and already I feel like breaking every one of them. Which of the great ones, men and women, our exemplars in the possibilities of our language in prose and poetry, has followed these so-called "rules"? Of course, as you so rightly say, we'd accept a manuscript (with the real manu-o-manu) written on a napkin, in crayon, from any of them!

"By The Manual"--I love this idea for a series! Real manual labors of love from real manually laboring writers. Did you know, by the way, that James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, and quite a good poet himself, developed a kind of verse form based on the way his old manual typewriter spaced his poetic 'line'?

Your "By the Manual" series idea makes me want to go out, buy some choice old model manual typewriter (not trypewriter), bring it home, set it up, and become Don Delilo or somebody equally talented as he. Do they still make manual typewriters that can do that for me?

Len said...


That's the trick to manual typewriters: All they do is transfer ink onto a blank sheet of paper. Somebody else has to supply the rest.

"Old School" is having quite effect on me. And since it's set in 1961, the manual typewriter makes more than a passing appearance. Here's a passage concerning one of the attributers of a manual typewriter that its decendants don't really possess:

"All through my dorm I heard typewriters. Maybe it was nothing new, maybe I'd just lost my filter, the way every voice around you will suddenly flood into your head, each with its own rhythm and tone. One machine went off in high crackling bursts like strings of cheap firecrackers. Another, even lower than George's, grumbled and surged like th engines of a ship. I tried not to listen for them."

It probably sounds juvenile, but there is something about working on a manual that sounds like writing. It probably comes from a diet of too many old movies, but there it is.

Robert G. Margolis said...


"Writin' It Old School", "Typin' It Old School", more good slogans. That passage you quote is lovely too. Again, for me, the act of close attention. The allusion to how an individual voice 'translates' or his heard in the sound of the typewriter keys striking the paper. The metal and mechanisms of the typewriter are somehow 'alive', in rapport with the writer's fingers, to the voice in the words silent on the page.

Not juvenile, I don't think, that you like the sound of a manual typewriter. The sounds of working in any particular craft, the sounds made by the tools of that craft, are deeply satisfying, and, I feel, an integral aspect of the fulfillment one feels in working and in the finished work. I, for example, like the sound a fountain pen makes as it moves, in writing, across the surface of the paper; I like, too, the feel of it, especially if it's a favorite pen, in my hand. A craftsman's or craftswoman's relationship to his/her tools is a fulfillment in itself.

The sound of one hand writing, the sound of two hands typing (on a manual typewriter), have it all over the sound of one hand clapping, if you ask me.

Len said...

Ah, yes! The fountain pen! Here is an entire subculture devoted to a device long thought dead. I, too, prefer nib pens (I don't have a true fountain pen) to their ballpoint brethren. That is a good sound. And the way that ink flows! It's a revelation!

What a good little machine the fountain pen is. it reminds me of my favorite piece of technology, all time. The humble book. It has never been matched and will never be exceeded.

Robert G. Margolis said...

"Fountain pen"--just the name itself is so elegant, so suggestive. Fount, fountain, fons vitae--the Source! Water of life, ink of inspiration, flowing, from heart to mind to hand. All alluded to in the very name!

And, in marriage, in union with the pen (miniscule or majiscule), yes, the book (miniscule or majiscule), yes, unsurpassed in elegance, in beauty, materially and symbolically so profoundly meaningful and resonant with meaning, following the teaching, which emphasizes the aspect of identity between symbol and symbolized, such that the pen, though a very distant reflection in this shadow world, is, in a sense, the Pen; the book, though a very distant reflection in this shadow world, is, in a sense, the Book.

The pen, the book, unequalled, unsurpassed, never to be improved upon, because they so singularly manifest and embody the realities they symbolize, and those realities, ARE what they ARE, beyond any human devising or contrivance.

Len said...

All right, I think i'm going to have to cut P.J. O'Rourke a little slack just because of the following quote, which is his:

"When you had to carve things in stone, you got the Ten Commandments. When things had to be written with a goose quill and you had to boil blood or whatever to make ink, you got Shakespeare. When you went over to the steel pen and manufactured inks, you got Henry James. You get to the typewriter, you get Jack Kerouac. When you get down to the wordprocessor - you get me. So improvement in the technology of writing hasn't improved writing itself, as far as I can tell. "

Sometimes it's hard to argue. Of course, during the carved stone period, not much got written, period. And the goose quill days brought us many more writers on the level of Frances Meres than those on a par with old Shakey. Since I've never been able to make it to the bottom of the first page of any of Henry James's output, I might instead refer to Twain or Dickens. I've never read Kerouac, although there were some Beatniks who lived down the street from us in 1965. Perhaps there has been something truly great that was written using word processing software. I don't know. They almost never include this information on the dust jacket.

Len said...

I forgot to mention Tom Wolfe as a well known manual typewriter user, and last night I found out that Larry McMurtry is another. I suspect that there are others, but that they hide themselves behind a smokescreen of e-mail and submissions transcribed by underpaid assistants and overworked grad students.

Robert G. Margolis said...


You're gonna have to cut me a little (or more than a little) slack, too: the few times I've heard the name "P.J. O'Rourke", I've thought it referred to a character in the comic strip "Doonesbury"! Yes, honest. Probably, that'll still be my first thought, when I hear the name in future.

Those correlations he writes sound good but, to me, they don't really mean anything one way or the other. There's plenty of very good, even great, writing that's gone directly from mind to fingers to computer keyboard, and there's plenty of crap that got scribbled with a quill. The divorce between technos and logos, as vehicled/embodied by machinus is just an aspect of this life and death dream we inherit and have to deal with, struggling to realize and express a proper, genuine intention. I once had a teacher who too smugly and proudly boasted that he 'still composed the traditional way, with an ink pen'. Which was just dandy, as long as he had his female underpaid secretary to type his manuscripts on a computer for publication (and to graciously endure his impatience at her difficulties reading his hand writing. But 'acts are according to intention,' says a Hadith, so let's all just get over ourselves, starting with me. When it comes to sinister technology, it's plastic, especially bags and saran-wrap and the like, that gives me the creeps, and breaks my heart, but I use a plastic razor-point 'pen' everyday.

Technos joined to logos is still the same dicey proposition it's always been, whatever the tool accompanies the writing. As you know, too, many peoples have had a suspicion of/aversion to writing itself, relying on oral transmission for any serious, purposeful communication and preservation of their language culture, and regarded writing as something that'kills' the spirit of the word. So who's kidding whom? As soon as dreamy Chung Tzu figures out for sure whether he's Chuang Tzu dreaming he's a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he's Chuang Tzu, he'll let us know.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Ha! Listen to me, up there, 'stealing around like I understand,' calling this this, and that that. Oh well, "Someday, I'll never learn," as poet Phillip Whalen said (first, handwritten, in a notebook). This computer machine sure do make it fun for me to forget to think or reflect, 'cause I can type faster than the speed of my ignorance. Melville, again, made another unannounced Sunday morning visit, stuck his head in the door and laughed at me.

But anyway, Len, all this time, during this discussion, I've forgotten to mention that what really says it for me is the song "John Henry". "And he laid down his hammer, and he died." As I child, I listened to a recording of that song, over and over, and wept each time. I still cry when I hear it. A powerfully expressive song that reaps the Whirlwind.

Bobby D. sings:

There's smoke on the water, it's been there since June
Tree trunks uprooted, there's blood on the moon
Feel the pulse and vibration and the rumbling force
Somebody is out there beating on a dead horse.

...In my case, beating on a dead iron horse.

Len said...


Okay, first, let me clarify the whole PJ O'Rourke thing. (I don't blame you for confusing him with a character in "Doonesbury." In many ways, he is.) Mr O'Rouke is an alleged humorist who came to some prominence in the '80s writing magazine pieces. These would then be collected into books with such titles as "Give War a Chance." Mr O'Rourke started out as a radical leftist in the Sixties, and somehow became a neocon by the '80s. Switched from smoking bombers to smoking cigars. I think the quote I gave above is emblematic of his style (and that of the whole neocon movement): Sounds good on first hearing, but betrays no real logic or meaning on further analysis.

And as far as I know, all we can really say from history about the writing of the Ten Commandments is that the book of the Bible they appear in was written in Babylon during the captivity probably, I would think, with brush and ink on sheepskin and possibly by a woman. (Originally there was an 11th Commandment: "Don't track mud across my nice, clean floor!")

The tool any writer uses is a preference, and a very personal one at that. In this matter, I happily support everyone right to choose.

More later: The TV beckons now.

Len said...

Robert, it's a strange thing because you can't get the genii back in the bottle, no matter what you do. (I believe that there's a Bugs Bunny cartoon that is very instructive on this point.) It's that whole Pndora thing. (You know, she's always gotten a bad rep because they say it was her curiousity that led her to open the box, but, for all we know, she was looking for something, like a Kleenex or a match.)

The technology monster isn't going to go away, so the question becomes, "How does one lead a sane life in the midst of insanity." As I sit here in CubeWorld poking away at the laptop that is on loan to me from The Corporation, I'm really not sure. You can't just ignore the machine, and as John Henry proved, you can't beat it, either. The only option left, it seems to me, is that very tricky tightrope walk in between. I guess it's the razor's edge. Which always reminds me of a line from Tom Lehrer's song, "Bright College Days": "Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life." Talk about philosophy.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Strange, stranger, strangest. The strangest of the strange. "Strange things happening everyday," as Rosetta Tharpe sang. And poor Pandora, she is us, her rap is our rap. We'll all have to take that rap.We built the box, we're the content, we're the ones who open it, we are the authors of the consequences. There's no going back, there never is; "the same stream twice", and all that. There is always the possibility of wisdom (minuscule and majiscule), but, ah, that requires a constant, prodigious effort waken from the dream. We and the first human beings are true contemporaries in that respect, and there's still no place to hide.

This world is a bridge; one doesn't make one's home on a bridge. 'In the world but not of it'--exactly as you say, that's always been, since there's been an "always", the teaching, the guiding principle, the norm of awareness and knowledge one aspires to live; it matters not the technology (though, surely, sinister, monstrous technologies, instruments of insatiable hunger and self-fulfilling ignorance do raise the stakes to the catastrophe point.) Ain't no goin' back. "High Water everywhere," as Charley Patton and Bob Dylan sing.

And, perhaps, the strangest, the craziest thing of all? Not realizing the nature and conditions of this temporary, impermanent abode, where nothing abides. Then there's but, as Shakespeare put it, a "little life rounded with sleep". As if machines, ever more sophisticated, pervasive inventions and technologies are going to give us or make up for the 'life' we've squandered in its illusory counterfeits. Rosetta Tharpe was right, and, one day, she said we'll see it.
John Henry didn't "win", obviously in one sense, but he didn't "lose" either, as the many versions of his song and story make clear. I think Rosetta Tharpe meant that one day we'll see that too. And, who knows, today could be the day!

Len said...

I think in my earlier post, I should have said that you can't fight the machine, rather than beat it. Can it be outwitted? I know I can.

It's just like my whole pursuit of a radio show or any other worldly activity. My Taoist teachers tell me that it is just vain striving. And yet, the moment when I became a writer, back when I was 14, was a purely spiritual experience, an actual, honest-to-goodness calling. And Chuang Tzu says "Nothing is worth attending to and yet things must be attended to."

Of course, I don't think the Taosit sages ever imagined the modern Cubist life. It's no wonder that Lao Tzu escaped into the mountains!