Rain on the roof: midnight serenade. I awaken to the sound of pounding droplets, keystrokes on the roof, drumming out the cadence of thoughts—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs—stories composed overhead in the night.
Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter is to be sold at auction, the Olivetti through which flowed five million words over the course of his literary life. I recall Hemingway’s Royal, on which he banged out his early journalistic copy and later short stories and novels; and Don Marquis’ archy the cockroach, hopping from key to key, leaving behind his trail of thought. Helen Miller, big bosomed, sitting at her desk, hair pinned up, writing copy in the 1930s for the West Schuylkill Press: did she touch type or, like Hemingway, hunt and peck?
Eleventh grade: Mr. Shirk’s academic typing class. I sit at my desk, eyes glued to the top bound open book, fingertips on the home row, and begin to strike the keys: a, s, d, f; j, k, l, ;—next the reaches: t, r, e, w, q; y, u, i, o, p. Later the words will come: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Mr. Shirk saunters up and down the aisle, periodically pausing at each student’s desk to observe. “Check to make sure your fingertips return to the home row,” he says in a quiet voice.
I look up from the open book to the piece of paper pressed against the platen. Through a slight shift of hand, a lateral displacement of the fingertips, I find that I have translated the quick brown fox into yjr wiovl ntpem gpc/. Embarrassed, I reposition my hands and try again.
Early morning rain beats down on the roof: myriad millions of droplets, pounding out a story. Tender is the night. For forty days the rains descended during the great flood; the waters rose, covering every mountain top. A rising tide lifts all boats—unless there’s a leak somewhere.
Dickens left his manuscripts, trails of thoughts composed in ink with quill pen; likewise Thoreau; later Hemingway and McCarthy on the platens of their Schreibmaschinen. Modern writers leave no such trails behind. Tracks are covered with spellcheckers and cut and paste, insert and delete. How will future literary hunters track our train of thought to learn the art of our composition? For we leave nothing behind but finished copy.
Raindrops on the roof, keystrokes, pound out the words: nature’s story. Seated at my desk in the darkness, fingertips poised on the home row, I take a moment to listen to this fine immemorial oral tradition. Presently, the skies will clear; the pounding will cease, these words will slip away.
But the written word remains for all time.