A Pilgrimage With A Typewriter

On May 5, 2012, writer Maya Stein left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts on a 40-day bicycle journey to Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a vintage typewriter in tow. She traveled for 40 days and more than 1,200 miles, stopping along the way in communities and engaging people to participate in a collaborative writing experiment.

The idea for a bicycle pilgrimage from Massachusetts to Wisconsin with a typewriter in tow began as a whimsical, childlike drawing I made on scratch paper on a brisk evening in late 2011, as fall was rounding the bend toward winter. I had been ogling a vintage aqua-colored Remington Ten Forty in the window of Amherst Typewriter and Computer for about two months, trying to justify the purchase.

One night, rolling the syllables that made up "typewriter" in my mind, I broke the word in two and came up with a pun, "type rider," and quickly drew a sketch of a woman bent over the handlebars of a road bike with a trailer behind her housing a massive typewriter. I was asking myself, "Who is this woman? And what is she doing pedaling this around?" when a childhood memory came swerving into view.

I was twelve and in the thick of sixth grade when my father began an evening ritual with a typewriter in our upstairs hallway. He tapped out the first lines of a short story and invited my older sister and I to contribute some sentences of our own. Over the next two years our collective words took new turns and expanded into a wildly inventive, collaborative literary adventure that became a vital building block in my creative development and introduced me to the power of expressing myself and witnessing my imagination in action.

Nearly twenty-eight years later, pausing before that sketch of the cyclist and her unusual cargo, I understood what "type rider" was: a way to share this experience of creative collaboration with others. And so a plan was hatched: to travel to the very birthplace of the typewriter deliver it in person, by bicycle, to the strangers I met along the way. On May 5, I rode toward my first stop, Westfield, MA, plunking down a writing prompt - "No matter what" --for any passersby who wanted to share their responses on the page.

And so each day went, traveling through towns like Canton, CT and Mahopac, NY, Doylestown, PA and Elmore, OH, Monroe, MI, and Waukegan, IL. I'd rise in the morning and prepare myself for the day's journey, load up the trailer with the typewriter, a folding table and chair, consult the map, and set out. I would arrive early afternoon at that day's destination, find a spot on the sidewalk in front of a café or a bookstore, type out a fresh writing prompt, and wait.

There were days when only a small handful of strangers stopped to participate, and other days -- June 9 and 10, for example, when I was in Chicago for the Printer's Row Literary Fest -- where I could barely keep up with the demand. But no matter how many people came to type, or where, or when, I witnessed a transformation occur each time -- a drawing inward, a focus, a concentration, an engagement that I hadn't anticipated. It was as if that intimate interaction with the keys -- stiff as they were sometimes and so unlike our overly sensitive keypads and touchscreens -- gave participants not only direct contact with their words but a more substantial, introspective connection with their stories.

The prompts brought to the page memories they may not have thought about for a long time, stories of family and love and loss and new beginnings, thoughts about the present and the future- which perhaps had felt elusive or even insubstantial, but through the thwack on the page and the ding marking the end of the line became more real, more important, more tangible evidence of who they were and what they believed and how much they wanted to be known and seen and felt.

Each day, as the Great American Poem gathered miles and words, I began to understand not just the power of manifesting ideas through deliberate action, but I also witnessed the power of non-competitive creativity. The Remington Ten Forty met with the hands of carpenters and ad execs, accountants and schoolteachers, security guards and newspaper reporters, young children and their parents and their parents' parents.

Without a screen to separate or isolate their stories, participants mingled on the page and shared poignant details of their lives, sometimes even lingering afterward to connect further with their fellow typists. Their words wove in between and among other words, creating a tapestry of identity and expression absent of self-consciousness, estrangement, or one-upmanship. Tucked into the typewriter, these stories held both personal and universal narratives, and the candor and transparency with which they were shared gave participants compassion for their own and others' vulnerability.

I have been a writer for many years, usually working alone, writing my poems and stories in a quiet room or cubicle or a coffeehouse, refining my craft and preparing my work for publication. In the pursuit of success, it is easy to lose contact with the fundamental itch that drives creativity, our stirrings of desire to make something new and our primal instinct to investigate our personal journeys where we find comfort in the mystery of the human experience.

Through the daily delivery of the typewriter to each new destination, and with each stranger who sat down to add their words to the body of writing that grew as I biked the back roads toward Milwaukee, I fell back in love with the original spark that begins each creative act: the belief in the importance of our stories, the recognition that these stories can bridge the differences between us, and the certainty that we are not -- and do not need to be -- alone.

Witnessing strangers bend low to the page, striking the keys with a look of both fierce concentration and deep contentment, I felt it pass through them, too: something in them coming alive, waking up, being written into being.

See Maya's tour around American with a typewriter:

See people write the poem