by Dan Laskin
In the beginning was carbon paper, greasy-black as if mined out of the earth, like coal.
It was a primitive kind of magic. Mom layered three sheets with four fresh onionskin pages, black against white in a thick typewriter sandwich, clacking out four copies of the same letter for the four brothers away at summer camp. "Dear Boys," she wrote, giving each of us a paragraph. She tried to keep a fair rotation, so that whoever got the original at summer's start would get the first carbon copy the next week, then the blurrier second copy, and finally the bottom sheet, its single-spaced lines faded to shadow.
Good old Mom, sending us regular doses of comfort and reassurance. But the letters provided another, more haunting reminder as well, a kind of embodiment-of presence, of absence, of time itself. As our weekly portion shifted deeper into the stack, farther away from the imprint of Mom's fingers, we could see her words receding, her voice growing fainter. The news of home dimmed; we ourselves, one after the other, grew gray on the page.
Then the last would become first again, getting another turn with a new original. The overall impression was of Mom's touch, her decisive keystrokes; but of an ineluctable fading away, too, because she reused the same carbons all summer long, rolling them through the typewriter week after week. Rumpled, creased, pockmarked, tapped and hammered and jabbed, the black sheets gradually lost all their shine. So that as the summer went on, the copies got harder to read. The words grew ever more fragile, verged on dust.
I wonder whether it was this, as much as anything-this visible evidence of words as muscled bodies surging into life, lapsing into decline-that first showed me the mysterious tangible force of language, its way of inhabiting, with every pulsed letter of the alphabet, solid shape and echoing sound.
Throughout my school years, writing was a sensory thing. I doodled burgeoning worlds in my notebooks. In college, I banged out papers on a manual upright, and, yes, I kept a supply of carbon paper. Photocopiers did exist but I don't remember using them except for major efforts. Typically, if I wanted a copy, I'd assemble my own carbon layers, which lent my work an air of the artisan.
Meanwhile, I struggled with white-out, cursing the fact that, at best, I could correct only the original. My carbon copy, riddled with strikeovers, reminded me of my old grade-school shop projects, each piece of wood a welter of dents showing where the hammer persistently missed the nail.
My first jobs in newspapers introduced me to the IBM Selectric, that wondrous machine which I always found vaguely unsettling. It was as sturdy as a tank and produced knife-sharp text. But I never quite got used to the type-ball-to the fact that there was no carriage to clatter dependably sideways as I wrote, like a train chugging along its little straightaway with my crafted thoughts in its wake.
It was an odd sensation to use the Selectric. It didn't feel quite like writing. That spastic ball sprang out, leaping and jerking, seemingly with a life of its own. It would jump almost before I touched a key, and its motion bore no relation to how I had hit the letter, hard or soft, fast or slow. The machine was out of sync with the flow of my thoughts. It was too instant. Too disembodied.
Not that I have much sentimental attachment to the manual typewriter. Soon after I left newspapers for a job at a college, the age of the personal computer dawned and, like everyone, I became happily addicted. I could search and replace, cut and paste-and the very phrase "cut and paste" struck me as amusing yet odd, summoning the absence of scissors and glue, those first, most basic tools, bequeathed in kindergarten and mastered over the course of a childhood.
Ah, scissors and glue. I'll never go back, any more than I'll go back to carbon paper and the clattering upright. To be honest, as word carpentry has grown ever more disembodied-flickering shadows on the screen, invisibly responding to invisible commands-I think my writing has improved.
The odd thing is that I stubbornly print out all my drafts. I have to. I know that it's a waste of paper, but I can't carry through my revisions-I can't sweat the details, polish, perfect-entirely on-screen. I need to hold the page in my hand and scratch away with a pencil.
Yes, a pencil, dark and primal, like carbon. I like the control, and I like the look-putting my own gray on the page. I like a world that I can notate, one that won't disappear if I accidentally hit Delete.