Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Paean to the Hermes Standard

By Stephen Dixon
Professor of Fiction, The Writing Seminars

Lots of things are changing for the good and a lot are changing for the bad. One sure sign of the bad is my inability to get my manual typewriter repaired. Another sure sign of the bad is my inability to buy a good new manual typewriter, but I seem to have headed off the latter sure sign by buying three manual typewriters of the same make, about eight years ago, so as to put off what I thought then would be the inevitable: buying manuals in the future and getting them repaired.

For a while I was able to get them repaired in Baltimore; not well, but they came back better than when I sent them. Then the repairmen in Baltimore said they no longer had the parts and then that they wouldn't know how to repair my manuals even if they had the parts. Washington was a second source of repairs of manuals, but service there dried up too.

Only in New York. There is something to say about a big fast city that still has a typewriter repairman or two who fixes manuals, and my kind of manual specifically: a Hermes standard. There is a man there, he has a shop on East 42nd Street, and he not only swears by my machine but blesses me for continuing to use it; not because I pay him for repairs; it'd seem he'd repair my machine for nothing, so enamored with the Hermes manual is he, almost as much as I am.

I send him my machine by UPS in the same box he sent me the repaired machine a year ago; he repairs the machine and sends it back in the same box he'd originally sent me the year before and which I had just sent him the machine in. Maybe what I must really see as a bad sign for the future is if the box breaks and we can't replace the box to send the machine back and forth from Baltimore to New York.

I could always get a word processor, couldn't I? In fact, the university I teach at would get me a word processor for nothing, I believe, and hook me into it so I'd be connected to all sorts of information centers around the world. But I don't want a word processor; I like a simple machine, one that is easy to operate and easy to look at (I can't stand monitors), and one that is also able to handle my heavy keyboard action. I want a machine I can rewrite a story on a dozen times, not just pluck out words here and there and press a button and my new words automatically go in where the old ones went out. The latter process is another sure sign of a bad future, for fiction writing. Good fiction writingÄserious literatureÄcannot be written on word processors, I feel. It can be done with a pen and transcribed onto a manual, or done straight onto a manual and then redone a dozen times till the work, for the moment, is perfect. Word processors give one the delusion things are going well, for they give off such clean copy and the margins are so justified and the writing, at least the punching of the keys, comes so effortlessly.

Another sure bad sign for the future is the request these days, by publishers and magazines that publish my work, for computer discs of my work. This started about two years ago and has recently become the norm. I don't have discs, I will not ask anyone to put my work on discs, and I'm afraid I'll lose out on a couple of publications in the future because my work is still in manuscript form when it comes to the publisher, and is going to continue that way. I feel sure that the publishing industry will be so wired into the word processor and all its accessories and cousins in the future that I will have manually typed myself out of book contracts and magazine assignments. I know hundreds of writers but only one other serious one who still uses a non-electronic manual typewriter.

Among the other bad signs to look for is the difficulty of finding erasable typewriter paper, typewriter ribbons to fit my machine, and last but not least, eraser pencils. The latter I have a couple of dozen of, which should keep me supplied for a few years. If the first two items are stopped being manufactured, I'm afraid I will use my last typewriter ribbon till it's torn and then give up writing.

I suppose one good sign is the continuing appeal to very young people of toy typewriters. If all else fails, it's not too farfetched to believe I might poke out my last works on these toy machines, or at least buy these machines just for their ribbons.

Needless to say, though, when my typewriter repairman in New York City, Mr. Calvieri, retires or even, for some reason, loses interest in repairing manuals, all hope will just about be lost to me.

Stephen Dixon is the author of five novels and 11 short-story collections, most recently Long Made Short (Johns Hopkins University Press) and The Stories of Stephen Dixon (Henry Holt). His novel Frog was nominated for the 1991 National Book Award.

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