Cast Iron Muse

Note:  Another of my near misses.  The editor cited the back page of the magazine as being booked up for the coming two years.  Or maybe she was being kind.  I don’t know.


Cast Iron Muse

Carlos Cunha


Feeling frustrated at not having written anything in weeks, I decide to take the day off to clear my mind.  I walk out of my downtown apartment waiting for a shaft of light to envelope me and deliver a minor epiphany to get the creative juices flowing again.

I wander into the antique shop I pass every afternoon on my way home.  The storefront is dwarfed by superstores surrounding it on all sides.  It’s a dark little crevice with a musty smelling interior, like the inside of a steamer trunk long hidden in an attic.  Wandering along the back wall, I almost miss the grimy black case as I scan the menagerie of antiquated office equipment lining the shelves.

Lifting the lid reveals lustrous gold letters on black keys.  More comforting scent of age wafts up to meet me.  A silver plaque on the case announces “ROYAL,” and another on the carriage proclaims “Quiet De Luxe.”  The machine is in remarkably good condition considering it was manufactured the year Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany.  Thoughts of fedora-wearing, cigar-chomping newspapermen dance in my imagination as I finger the keys.  Did a reporter use this state of the art portable to type dispatches to his hometown newspaper warning of the Third Reich?

The rejection-crazed pessimist in me says it was used by just another frustrated writer with more determination than talent.  I manage to push him away and begin daydreaming about which of my heroes might have pounded out priceless works of American literature on this typewriter as I carry it to the register.

At home, I lift the pristine typewriter out of the leather covered wood case.  It has mass.  Not just weight, but a mass that surprises me with the strength needed to remove it.  No space-age materials here.  I insert a sheet of paper to give the old girl a test.  The hand positioning taught in typing class is an odd fit on the spacing of the keys.  I start to type and promptly slide a finger off one of the lacquered keys burying it to the first knuckle between the “K” and “L” keys, and jamming the edge of the key deep into my cuticle.

“Ow!  That actually smarts,” I blurt out surprised, while examining the pushed back edge along my fingernail.  “Let me try that again.”

Hitting the keys uses an entirely different style than the soft touch needed on a keyboard.  I quickly discover hovering my hands over the keys and striking from aloft works best.  The gunshot-like sounds startle me at first as they rip through the room.  This will take some getting used to.

At the end of the third line, I notice the uneven color of the letters and wonder aloud how writers ever finished any manuscripts of these clacking, ringing contraptions with copy clean enough for submission.

“Come on,” I tell myself, “Hemingway and Steinbeck managed just fine with them.  Harlan Ellison still uses one exclusively.”

He also claims to type 120 words a minute with two fingers, but I’ll take him at his word.  Still, with the exception of a few masochists and Third World countries without electricity, no one uses these things anymore.  Technology has progress to where we have word-processing programs that allow production of manuscripts at the speed of speech.

My fingers hurt after the first paragraph from having to hit the keys so hard, but there is purity in the old machine.  It possesses an integrity not found in word-processors.  Even electric typewriters are hard pressed to capture the magic.  This Carpal Tunnel Nautilus harkens back to a time when being a writer was physical job.  The technology of the time required a determination and economy of words often missing today.

My fingers tips are ink stained from unbinding stuck keys and fiddling with the ribbon.  The racket has become relaxing in an odd way.  I refine my technique with every typo, even though I can’t break myself of reaching for a nonexistent “return” key.  The feeling of accomplishment with every “ting” at line’s end fires me in a way I have not felt since pounding out my first short story with two fingers (at markedly less than 120 words per minute) for high school English class.

New plots develop as fast as the arms swing up to meet the tattered ribbon.  Correcting as I go, the term “rough draft” takes on new meaning.  The thought of turning on the computer for the rewrite makes me feel as if I’m being unfaithful to a new lover.  This mass of black iron has cast a spell of renewed creativity over me.  Continuing to the end has turned into an exercise in discipline, but the reward is worth the sore fingers.  My cast iron muse has dispelled the feeling of being tapped out that originally caused me to take the day off.

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