Writers on Writing #98: Daniel Nester
Type Hard or Go Home: In Praise of the Clicky Keyboard
Late in the last millennium, I belonged to the Writers Room, an urban writers’ colony on Astor Place. After long days registering film students at New York University, I wrote poems in the Writers Room’s a dimly lit, womblike constellation of cubicles, and filled legal pads of paper, heavy-eyed, fighting off sleep.
What kept me awake, besides a pot of coffee in the kitchen, rested just past the administrative offices, in another room set aside for half-dozen or so members who worked on typewriters. Through a thick glass door, the industrious click-clacks of these Remingtons inspired me to keep going.
Fast-forward to today. I’ve joined the tribe of writers who cling to an older, noisier technology. Not the typewriter, which has been taken up by many other writers, either as an app or the real thing. I’m talking about the clicky keyboard.
I am typing these words on an IBM Model M, a behemoth beast of a keyboard that has a solid steel plate inside. For the past fifteen years, I have refused to type on anything other than a Model M. Made by IBM from 1985 until 1991 (successors made by Lexmark and now Unicomp, while good, are not regarded as classic), it weighs in at six pounds, about as much as six iPads, and connects to a computer with a curly cable that resembles something Jimi Hendrix might have used with his Fender Stratocaster. Its clicks rival any Remington’s.
I attach Model Ms to my work and home computer, as well as my laptop when I am not out in public (I’ve even made a case for it, which resembles a violin’s). My office mates know when I am at work by the clacks coming out of my office. Since my first two books, poem and essay collections on my obsession with the rock band Queen, on up to the memoir I am now finishing, the Model M has been at my fingertips.
“I have almost obsessive relation to writing instruments,” Roland Barthes said in an interview with Le Monde in 1973. My obsession with Model M keyboards rests with its touch. Unlike a membrane keyboard, which is basically a rubber mat with sensors underneath, a Model M uses buckling springs and switches. Each key bounces back and lets out a click. This auditory and tactile feedback, especially for an untrained typist like me, is especially gratifying. Far from causing carpal tunnel stress, I find this prevents my fingers from pounding on unresponsive nubs.
For years, I took pride staying up-to-date with every shiny new machine, every update to our digital lives. In graduate school, I heard about how the late poet Galway Kinnell used WordPerfect 5.0. He had no idea how to use a computer; the IT guy just had him shut the monitor off and on. Perhaps it’s middle age, but the fact that I need a clicky keyboard doesn’t seem so strange now. Joyce Carol Oates famously still writes in longhand, after all. Henry James dictated to a typist. I’ve just refined my process.
“Does a writer’s style depend on the tools he uses?” Arthur Krystal asks in an essay on the early days of the typewriter. Yes and no. Unlike painters or musicians whose tools and instruments are fully integrated into their art, writers just have words on a page. Sometimes, however, I think I have to be a little angry to write. I need to get worked up in some fashion, and take it out on my keyboard. One fan site dedicated to Model M’s has a tagline I love: “Type hard or go home.” William Wordsworth describes good poetry as coming from a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I take my overflows out on a keyboard that can also be used as a weapon.
As we approach its thirtieth anniversary, more and more homages to the Model M have turned up, from Wired, Lifehacker, and PC World. Adi Robertson’s “King of click: the story of the greatest keyboard ever made,” which ran last year in The Verge, elicited a dual response of joy and dread: joy over reading 2,000 words on “one of the computer world’s most prized and useful antiques,” along with racks of mint-condition M’s displayed like fine art, and dread over how such publicity would drove up prices on eBay. (Mint-condition Model M’s now fetch upwards of $300.)
Clicky keyboard loyalists make strange bedfellows. I am sure a good number of other writers love their keyboards clicky, but for the most part I find my brethren with gamers. Turns out there is this whole other tribe of people who spend hours pounding on keyboards, and demand a higher degree of responsiveness. They and can discern between a key’s 45- and 55-gram actuation weights. It’s an alternative universe where some keyboard connoisseurs prefer Cherry MX Blue switches (clicky and tactile), others MX Brown (tactile but silent) or Cherry MX Red (linear stroke, less sticky). Markus Alexej “Notch” Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, sings the praises of his Model M. Gamers, alas, can’t abide use a Model M while playing—its ancient technology can’t accommodate rollovers, or pressing on multiple key combinations, causing it to jam or ghosting, pressing another key as well.
Like a crate-digger DJ or the gearhound guitar player in search of an elusive sound, I collect Model M’s in the basement, just in case one breaks. My first hasn’t kicked the bucket yet. Under each Model M’s chassis is a sticker that lists the date when it was built. My keyboard’s birthday, August 26, 1991, coincides with the year I graduated from college. Bryan Adams, Paula Abdul, and Vanilla Ice were at the top of the charts, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was issued to the radio.
In an age where so many are content to smudge messages with oily thumbs on a screen, or type out novels with rubber chiclets, I feel like I am part of a tradition pounding on Model M. I might be phased out like a holdout typists, or given a special room keep things quiet. That’s fine with me. Plus the clicks keep me awake.
Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Grief, Making Out in Church, and Other Unlearnable Subjects, which is due from 99: The Press in 2015. Other books include How to Be Inappropriate, God Save My Queen I and II, and The Incredible Sestina Anthology, which he edited. He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Follow him on twitter, or visit him at his website at danielnester.com