Jack’s Typewriter

Thankfully you never saw our big mistake in the C.S. Lewis conference trailer.

For the video we hired an actor to play Lewis, to walk through a garden, to look into the sky, and to read a book in a high-back chair.

But one scene nobody saw was Lewis at his typewriter, not because we didn’t accidentally film the scene (and delete it later), but because such a scene never happened. Lewis detested typewriters.

At first this was merely a curious footnote in the brilliant and fascinating life of Lewis. But it led me to ask why? Why didn’t Lewis use a typewriter? After all, a typewriter was a common machine for any twentieth century writer (Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough still uses one today!).

A Journey to Understand Why

So that started me on a journey to understand why.

I started with George Sayer, and his biography of Lewis. He writes:

Having never learned to type, Jack wrote all his books in longhand and had Warren [his brother] type final drafts. He then ordinarily destroyed the original handwritten manuscripts because he hadn’t the room to store them.

So that’s the process. Jack wrote books by hand, his brother Warnie typed them out, and the scribbled manuscripts were used to start fires.

Warnie the Typist

In fact, Warnie loved to type. He took to the technology of the typewriter, and it became something of an addiction for him, much like computers and technology are for some of us today. On his trusty, portable Royal typewriter, Warnie typed for decades with just two fingers, using what’s called the “hunt-and-peck” method. But despite his quirky typing style, he soon became an experienced typist after he took up mass of family papers left by his and Jack’s dad, and between 1933–1935, typed them into 3,000 pages of material for publication.

On November 30, 1942, Warnie typed the first letter for his brother Jack. From that point on, Warnie served his brother for twenty-one years as his assistant, typing out some of his books, and hunting-and-pecking out what he estimated to be 12,000 letters on his brother’s behalf.

Their system for correspondence and for books was similar. Jack scribbled his letters in shorthand; Warnie decoded and typed them with two fingers. Humorously enough, neither of them could spell very well, but the typed letters were beautiful enough in the end.

Jack the Scribbler

Jack was a scribbler. In one handwritten letter, Jack wrote: “This will have to be an inadequate scrawl, for my brother, who drives the typewriter, is away.”

And in response to someone’s typed letter, Jack said: “You can drive a typewriter, which I could no more drive than a locomotive (I’d sooner drive the locomotive too).” Just imagine C.S. Lewis driving a freight train! Neither would he drive a typewriter.

Jack avoided the typewriter, but not simply because he had a willing volunteer in his brother. In one letter to a young American schoolgirl, who asked for writing advice, Jack included this: “Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.”

Thumbs and Clacking

Okay, so typewriters destroy a writer’s rhythm. Now we’re on to something.

From there I turned to Alistair McGrath’s new biography of Lewis, to read this:

Lewis himself never learned to [type], always depending on pens. One reason for this was the ‘native clumsiness’ arising from Lewis’s having only one joint in his thumbs, preventing him from using a typewriter properly. Yet there is more to it than this. Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.

So Lewis did not type because (1) he didn’t have the thumbs for it, and (2) he thought typewriter noise was too disruptive.

But McGrath’s explanation left me wanting.

First, Warnie himself was proof that you can be a prolific typist and never use your thumbs. Second, the loud clacking of a typewriter is distracting, and of course it can disrupt a writer’s rhythm, but this alone doesn’t explain what the rhythm is.

If we stop here, and a lot of people do, then the typewriter’s noise becomes the main issue. Typewriters are too loud, and we have quiet keyboards now. My Mac keyboard, which is about ½-inch thick, makes almost no noise at all. So Jack’s issue with typewriters is a moot point today, right?

Not so fast.

I had a hunch this was about more than noise, so I persisted in my quest to understand.

The Hunt Continues

Next I turned to Douglas Gresham’s biography of Lewis, where I discovered this humorous account:

Warnie was well able to help Jack with answering mail, as he had learned to type and had bought a typewriter. Of course this meant that Jack and Warnie had to work in separate rooms because Jack found the tapping of the typewriter keys very distracting, to say nothing of Warnie’s occasional grunt or mild expression of annoyance when he hit the wrong key, which he did often. . . .

Warnie was never a good typist. He always typed with just two fingers, and he made lots of mistakes, but at least everyone could read whatever he wrote. Jack, on the other hand, scribbled away with his dip pen, and over the years his handwriting slowly got worse and worse. Many people found his letters hard to read. Sometimes they even wrote back asking what he has said in the first letter!”

That’s funny — and illuminating. Here’s the key phrase that jumped off the page: dip pen. Not just any pen, but a special pen, a dip pen.

Got Rhythm?

So what’s so special about this dip pen? This question finally led me to Walter Hooper. In his introductions to the collected letters of C. S. Lewis, he wrote this:

Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.

Bingo. There’s the rhythm. Lewis avoided a typewriter, not primarily for the noise of the typewriter, but primarily for the rhythm of the dip pen. The dip pen created the quiet space Lewis needed to speak and edit and sharpen and shape his next four or five words.

The Takeaway

C. S. Lewis believed it was necessary to capture the rhythm of writing by speaking the words out ahead of the typewriter, or dip pen, or maybe even the quiet computer keyboard. To gain rhythm, a writer should learn to whisper the words ahead of his fingers — let them sound right to the ear first, shape and mold them in the air — and then capture them.

Think about this when you write. And think about this when you read Narnia aloud to your kids. Think about this when you listen to The Screwtape Letters audiobook in your car. Lewis spoke these books into existence, and by them Lewis still speaks.

Quotes and details in this post taken from: George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis (1994), 273–4; Alistair McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (2013), 163, 240; Douglas Gresham, Jack’s Life (2005), 115; Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, 1:x, 2:xiii, 2:538, 3:376, 3:486, 3:939, 3:1109.