Jack’s Typewriter

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

My name is Tony Reinke. I’m a Content Strategist at Desiring God, which probably means nothing to you. I write, blog, tweet, and do some podcasts. How many of you listen to the Ask Pastor John podcast? Okay, you probably recognize my voice. You’re probably going to say, “Man, I’m glad we don’t see his face,” right? Thank you for being here. I have a seven-minute vignette on why C.S. Lewis hated typewriters, and then we’ll be done.

Lewis and Typewriters

Thankfully, you never saw one of the biggest mistakes we made on the Desiring God National Conference trailer. You might have seen the trailer. We hired an actor to walk around, looking like C.S. Lewis. He was around in the garden, he was looking up into the sky, and then he was sitting in a high-back chair reading books. How many of you saw that trailer? Okay, well the one scene you did not see in that trailer was Jack Lewis sitting down at the typewriter, and it’s not because we didn’t film that scene and later delete it, but it’s because that scene never happened.

C.S. Lewis detested typewriters. Now at first, this was merely a curious footnote in the brilliant and fascinating life of C.S. Lewis, but it led me to ask the question, why? Why did C.S. Lewis detest typewriters? Why could he not even work in the same room as a typewriter? It led me to ask this question. Typewriters, obviously, are a pretty common machine for writers. Even David McCullough, the historian, still uses a typewriter to this day. So that started me on a journey, and this is my journey.

Warren the Typing Assistant

I first started in the biography of Lewis written by George Sayer. This is what George Sayer writes. He says:

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

Okay, so Lewis destroyed all of his original handwritten books. So that’s the process. Jack wrote his books by hand. He passed those on to Warnie, Warnie typed those out, and the scribbled manuscripts were used to start fires.

In fact, Warnie loved to type. C.S. Lewis’s brother loved to type. He took to the technology of a typewriter like some of us probably take to iPhone technology today. Warnie loved to type. It was something of an addiction for him. On his trusty portable Royal Typewriter, Warnie typed for decades with just two fingers using the hunt and peck method. And despite his quirky typing style, he became very experienced at typing. C.S. Lewis and Warnie’s dad left a mass of family documents and letters and records which Warnie typed up with the hunt and peck method into 3,000 pages of material for publication. That was between 1933 and 1935.

In November of 1942, Warnie typed the first letter for his brother, Jack, C.S. Lewis. From that point on, Warnie served his brother for 21 years as his assistant, typing out some of his books and doing the hunting and pecking on his letters to send out to others. And Warnie came to believe that he had written for C.S. Lewis some 12,000 correspondences, so he was a very valuable assistant.

Their system for correspondence and for writing books was very similar. Jack scribbled out his letters in shorthand, Warnie decoded them, and he typed them out with two fingers, and humorously enough, neither Jack nor Warnie could spell very well, so there are a lot of typos and stuff in the letters. It’s kind of ugly, but they got the job done. That’s the thing.

Jack was a scribbler. One time, he wrote a handwritten letter where he said, “This will have to be an inadequate scroll, for my brother, who drives the typewriter, is away.” So he just had to scribble it out. And in response to someone’s typed letter, Jack said this, “You can drive a typewriter, which I could no more drive than a locomotive, and I would soon rather drive the locomotive.” Now imagine C.S. Lewis driving a freight train. Okay, that’s a very humorous picture. Well neither could he drive a typewriter. He didn’t want to. He had no interest in it.

Writing in Rhythm

Jack avoided the typewriter, but not simply because he had a willing volunteer in his brother. In a letter to a young American schoolgirl who asked for writing advice, Jack said this, “Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still has years of training.” So you can imagine a typewriter, the clacking, slapping noise. Some of us are used to our little keyboards, but a typewriter is very noisy, and C.S. Lewis just did not like that noise. So typewriters destroy a writer’s sense of rhythm. Now we’re on to something. We’re starting to get a sense of why Lewis did not like typewriters.

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

Lewis himself never learned to type, always depending on pens. One reason was the native clumsiness arising from Lewis having only one joint in his thumbs, preventing him from using a typewriter properly. Yet there’s 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 the cadences of the English language.

So Lewis did not type, number one, because he didn’t have the thumbs for it. He only had one joint in his thumbs. Second of all, he thought the typewriter noise was too disruptive.

The problem is McGrath’s explanation here left me wanting. First of all, Warnie didn’t use his thumbs either, and he was a prolific typist. And second of all, if we stop here — and a lot of people do stop here — we don’t know what C.S. Lewis’s rhythm was. We know what the distraction is (the noise of the typewriter), but we don’t know what the rhythm was that Lewis was trying to preserve.

Lewis’s Favored Writing Tool: Dip Pens

So if we stop here, and a lot of people do, then the typewriter’s noise becomes the main issue. Typewriters were too loud, and now we have quiet keyboards. I have a Mac keyboard that’s about a half inch thick, and it makes almost no noise whatsoever. So the issue is resolved, right? Not so fast. I had a hunch this was more than just about the noise of the typewriter, so I persisted in my quest to understand.

Next, I turned to Douglas Gresham’s biography of Lewis. Listen to this humorous account of the brothers working together:

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 oftentimes did.

Now 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 what he wrote. Jack, on the other hand, scribbled away with his dip pen, and over the years, his handwriting slowly got worse and worse and worse. Many people found his letters so hard to read that sometimes they even wrote back asking what he had said in the first letter.

Whispering Every Word

Okay, so Lewis’s scribbling was very illegible. It’s very funny, but it’s illuminating because here we get a phrase that helps decode or helps us solve this mystery of why Lewis hated typewriters, and it’s that phrase “dip pen.” This was not just any pen, not just a fountain pen, not a ballpoint pen, but a dip pen. That becomes very key.

So what’s so special about this dip pen? This question finally led me to Walter Hooper’s biography. In his introductions to The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, he writes 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 the 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 the exact rhythm he needed.

Bingo, there’s the rhythm. Lewis avoided the 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 that Lewis needed to speak and edit and sharpen and shape his next’s four or five words in the air. C.S. Lewis believed it was necessary to capture the rhythm of writing by speaking the words out ahead of the typewriter or the dip pin, or even the quiet computer keyboard that we use today. To gain rhythm, a writer should learn to whisper the words ahead of his fingers, let them sound right to the ear first, and then shape and mold them into the air and capture them on paper.

Think about this when you write, and think about this when you read Narnia to your kids, and think about this when you’re listening to the Screwtape Letters in your car on your way to work. Lewis spoke these books into existence, and by them, Lewis still speaks.