The Typewriter: Without Distraction or the Twitch of Alt+Tab


It is easy to condescendingly dismiss those who insist on hand-writing their letters, resist digital photography and are incapable of writing even so much as a grocery list on their laptop. There is kind of a natural reaction to comment on how “picky” or “whiny” they are being without considering how hard it truly is to organize one’s thoughts and produce one’s best works when being berated by the impulsive self. I do have my more philosophical musings on this renewed suspicion of technology that I won’t expound here (dialectical process, anyone?), but it could turn out that by walking upright into the bombardment of stimulation we walk out doing what we do – adapting.

Or, we could be the lab mouse who, with electrodes held to the pleasure-centers of the brain, spend our waking moments pressing the lever enjoying every second of it even if it means we forget to eat, drink – or, more importantly, think. (You might take a guess at who I think won the Fire or Ice debate between Huxley and Orwell).

Patrick Nathan over at Xenith.net (a Minnesota online writing zine) has an interesting article about his experience upon using a typewriter instead of a laptop for his writing and how his output just exploded. The reason? You can guarantee that the mouse won’t press the lever if the lever’s not there; the hard part is tearing it off the wall.

But even behind the safety of that closed [writer’s] door … is your writing machine. Given that we’re already well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, I’m willing to bet that your writing machine is also an e-mail machine, a blog machine, a magazine and newspaper machine, a Facebook machine, a Twitter machine, and in some cases a pinball machine. Even if the door to your office or bedroom or walk-in closet is shut tight and the cracks have been stuffed with strips of foam, the metaphorical door is still open. The e-mails are still coming. The tweets are still tweeting. Your friends are still unfriending you over all the gay rights stuff you’ve been posting1.

Nathan then writes of his sudden efficiency, which is something I can relate to almost verbatim.

I’m not a very fast writer. A first draft of a short story can take me a week or two, depending on how engaged I am. Other writers may find my predicament familiar: you finish a scene—even a short one—and lean back away from your computer like you’ve just run around a lake. The idea of jumping right into the next scene makes you sigh—you literally sigh, there at your desk—and instead you get up and go rummage through the kitchen, because surely there’s some coffee left in the pot.

What happened when I wrote at my typewriter was the exact opposite of this, meaning I didn’t even realize that time was passing. I sat down on a Saturday morning and wrote 3,000 words with a three minute break in the middle to get a glass of water. The whole story—and I’d written the whole story—took 90 minutes. Sure it was rough—sure it had its share of typos and crossed out sentences3—but the first draft was fucking done, almost like writing was something that didn’t require a little sweat, that didn’t feel like punishment. It was even fun, sitting there clacking away and listening to the bell ding every few seconds.

The secret is simply the lack of distraction, the ability to lose oneself in their writing without having to worry about temptation because the laptop is turned off and the clacks of the keys and ding of the bell are music in the air.

Secretariat LC Smith & Corona Typewriter

My own Smith-Corona typewriter

When “the zone” is nothing less than one’s complete focus on their subject, a sudden transcendence of and gradual melding of the self with the tools upon the fingertips, it is no surprise that the sheer size of the workbench inspires temptation. Though all one may need is a carpentry knife, temptation manufactures want of the saw, the hammer, every shape and size of molded metal; without transition, such wants kindle an illusion of necessity.

Sending the blinking, black marker rolling across the back light of Microsoft Word, concentration grows until a single thought – rising and unwanted – perches beside the ego and asks, “Have you refreshed your Facebook page lately?” It answers itself, “Of course not – not since we liked Brittany’s comment or updated our status.” The fingers of the left hand slide from the home-row until the thumb rests comfortably on Alt and the ring strokes Tab. Then rapidly – imperceptibly – there’s a twitch.

A notification! Its own shade of red stands out above the darker colors of the page. The mouse scrolls to meet it and with a click it turns out that it’s the changed name of an event, a post in a group one’ll never read, or another unknown of the 700 friends liking this or that. Well, may as well refresh Gmail (even though it does so itself).

The internet has lost its fun; temptation has been met, satiated, drained like a sore. There’s the twitch of the left hand again and the eyes roll across lines of Calibri framed in light blue until the blinking, black marker stands as a wall. And one asks,

“Where was I?”

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4 thoughts on “The Typewriter: Without Distraction or the Twitch of Alt+Tab

  1. This is perhaps my favorite post of the year. I have a black, early 1900’s Royal typewriter and it is an oddly freeing experience. I used to love taking notes for school on it because I loved the feel of the keys, the sound of the bell, and the satisfaction of ripping a page from the return carriage. But also because it gives you one simple task: write. That is its purpose. To punch words onto a page at your command. Again: I love this post.

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  2. If it’s any help, I’m really into Ommwriter. It’s a white-screen text editor with no bells or whistles, that also blocks your ability to Alt+Tab. It can also make clickety-clacking noises and play music, if you like, although I don’t really have the patience for that… I wouldn’t use it for a novel but it’s a very helpful web writing tool and MILES better than MS Word.

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