The Typewriter Lives

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of typewriter with paper rolled up ready to typeI wrote the first draft of this post on my typewriter. Like much of my other writing, this piece began as handwritten notes and drafts typed on a nice little portable typewriter, which is a little younger than I am and which I expect to use for the rest of my life.

I first thought about using a typewriter because I wanted fewer distractions when I write. One of the beauties of the typewriter is that it does just one thing. You can’t check your email or anything else; you can’t multitask. You can’t follow any of the myriad paths that the Internet opens up. You can write whatever you want to, but all you can do is write.

Another reason I chose to do some of my work on a typewriter is that the computer has become associated in my mind with various types of paid online work—office jobs that were ultimately tedious, and more recently, my current editing work. These days when I face a piece of text on the computer and have to interact with it (rather than read it), my default attitude is finicky, and I always have an eye to the ways that others will evaluate my work. This makes it harder to move out of editor mode and into writing mode when I’m working on the computer. I thought a typewriter might provide a more friendly environment for writing, especially in the early stages, when ideas are often at their most nebulous and easily scattered, and when I’m most easily discouraged or overwhelmed.

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I did find that typing puts me in a different mindset in which I focus on creation rather than on revision. Even for people who don’t edit for a living, the computer makes it easy to confuse writing and editing because it’s so easy to back up and rewrite as soon as the words appear on the screen—to second-guess yourself. This can make it difficult to get into a piece or to maintain momentum in developing ideas. The typewriter is much more suited to moving ahead, once you’ve thought about what you’re trying to say. I type X’s over the occasional false start, but by and large I commit to pressing on and following a line of thought to its conclusion as best I can. I focus on the arduous work of translating a rush of tangled thoughts into a coherent sequence of words. The gaps and sections of vague hand-waving that appear in drafts point me toward the next steps I need to take.

Similarly, the typewriter makes it much harder to confuse research and writing. When I’m typing, if I need a specific fact or figure, or want to check a definition, I try adding a parenthetical note to myself to look it up. My writing can usually flow on without the specific bit of data, so I continue writing and then look it up later. If I can’t go on without the information, I have to leave the typewriter and consult a reference source. This clearly signals a shift back to an earlier stage of the work. It’s obvious when I move away from writing and when I eventually return. On the Internet, it can be a lot harder to tell not only when you stray from writing to research, but when you then move on from research to idle wandering.

Ultimately I’ve found that writing online and writing on the typewriter are more like two distinct tasks rather than different ways to perform the same task. I’m still figuring out the finer points of when to use the typewriter and when to switch to an online text editor. It varies depending on the project, and some of what I type is never intended to see the light of day but rather to provide seeds for future pieces. In general, when typing up a new draft starts to seem tedious, it’s time to move to a more flexible online tool that will let me do fine-grained editing and prepare a piece for publication.

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Typing also offered me more than I expected. I found, for example, that I love the physicality of typing. I love the stacks of typewritten pages. I enjoy typing: the busy clatter of the keys, the zing and thunk of the carriage return, the greater resistance of the keys and the physical sense of applying force to make an impression on the page. I had missed the concept of the page more than I realized. Having grown up with paper, I find the number of pages a more instinctive indicator of the volume of work I’ve done or the length of a particular piece than the word count, which is the most common quantitative measure of endlessly scrolling computer files.

I found that I really like not having to name files and decide where to put them right at the beginning of a writing session or a project. The computer forces these decisions well before they’re easy for me to make. In fact, the filename is so ubiquitous and essential in computing that I had forgotten that typed pages don’t really need any kind of label. My most recent work is grouped and separated by paperclips. Pages are ultimately gathered into labeled file folders (although even there, the label is not always essential until a project is finished and goes into the file drawer). It’s so easy to just put the paper into the typewriter and go, and leave the sorting and filing for later, after I’ve got something to sort.

I also like having physical pages that I can mark up, adding notes and arrows and stars. This is particularly useful for a type of writing session that happens when ideas have been gathering around a topic, and there’s sufficient mental pressure that the ideas need to be released to the page. The result is not always the starting point of a particular essay; sometimes it’s a source of material for multiple pieces. Having this type of writing on paper is invaluable. I can refer to it easily; I don’t need to worry that stray ideas are hidden under an unrevealing file name, or that the file will go into a directory where it’s hard for me to remember to look at it. My work often feels more accessible to me on paper.

My typed work also feels like it more clearly belongs to me. I don’t need to worry about whether my pages are secure or private, because of course they are. I’m not at the mercy of a software provider; I never need to upgrade my typewriter or worry about security flaws. The interface in which I work will not suddenly change. Being online is inherently public; the flood of information from the outside world is always at least lurking in the background. Typing is about being alone with myself, drawing things from my mind, working out how to express them and arrange them, and transforming them into words on a page. Ultimately I turn outward again to become an atom in the flood, but it’s much easier to start writing when I’m outside of it.

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I’m sure many people once felt about the typewriter the way I do about the computer: that it was something they had to use to do boring work for other people. The typewriter has been seen as obsolescent because it’s no longer the most efficient way to do that kind of work, to prepare invoices or write (someone else’s) letters. Another way to look at it, though, is that because the typewriter has by and large left the workplace, everyone is now free to use it as they like, without even thinking about efficiency or speed. The typewriter is not for processing words!

The clearest sign that using a typewriter was a good decision for me is how much I enjoy being in my typing workspace. I usually have handwritten and typed notes and previous drafts spread out on the table around the typewriter. The typed pages are often marked up with handwritten notes. This congenial chaos feels so good to me in part because it’s familiar; it reminds me of when I was a teenager, using my parents’ Royal typewriter to write stories about my family or type up a family newspaper—pursuing my own projects. In addition, paper just works well for me. I like to see and handle my words on paper. Even if I’m having a hard time with a particular writing session, the sight of the typewriter with a half-finished draft in it is usually comfortable and inviting.

Others are also finding that the typewriter is a beautiful, useful, human-scale machine. In fact, enough people are using typewriters that there’s at least one printed guide for them, Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century. The book includes the Typewriter Manifesto, which positions the typewriter as subversive and rebellious. I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but I can see Polt’s point, and I find much to agree with in the book. (Just after I made a handwritten note to myself about how inviting the page-in-progress looks, I read in The Typewriter Revolution that “A typewriter is a constant invitation to write.”) California Typewriter is an engaging documentary that looks at typewriters and the people who use them. It’s clear from both the book and the film that young people as well as people who are old enough to remember typewriters are using them now. At a type-in I attended last year, I was delighted to see a child of maybe 10 or 12 win the drawing for a typewriter.

Typewriters are not the only older technology that is being discovered, or rediscovered. In a digital world, there is still room for photographic film, vinyl records, and paper books. People who adopt older technologies are making conscious decisions about the tools they use, distinguishing between what digital technology enables (or enforces) and what they really want. I’m not sure if Thoreau would see it this way, but I think these choices are about living deliberately.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

You can see more of my work at maryhrovat.com.

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