Back to the Typewriter

While it can’t store your data, play music or download movies, it will help you do the one thing that counts: Write

Opinion | Mazin Elfehaid | June 2011

Professional writers have a lot of enemies – publishers, deadlines, sometimes even last week’s interview subject.

My personal biggest enemy is distraction – Twitter, Facebook, and my blog seem to all sing their siren song to me the moment I put my fingers on my laptop.  (I’ve spent more afternoons "writing" than I care to divulge here, lest it compromise my reputation.) It’s safe to say that I’m surprised I get any writing done at all.

At least, that’s how it was until 10 days ago. Because last week, I bought a typewriter.

For those of you born after the end of the last ice age, a typewriter is a primitive form of writing implement with a keyboard attached by springs and levers to metal hammers molded into letter shapes. Those keys are slammed at high velocity into an ink ribbon and piece of paper, forever branding said paper with the appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) letter.

Why buy a typewriter?

Because there are so many things that it cannot do. It can’t play music, movies, or video games. It can’t check your GPS coordinates and relay them back to corporate HQ. It can’t store your data, or save your work.  And it most certainly won’t let you check your Facebook profile, Twitter or email.

But there is one thing that it does exceedingly well:  Put. Words. On. Paper.

My personal typewriter is a 1963 Olivetti Lettera 32, a model popular with journalists and students for its portability and used by Cormac McCarthy for all his work.  The design of this machine is stunning: Sleek and stylish, it looks and feels like a product designed by Apple – if Apple had been around in the pre-computer age, that is.

Do not, however, doubt the stone-age credentials of this device. One must hulk-smash the words onto the keyboard in order to make them appear legibly – it’s not so much typing as it is word wrangling.

But that, it turns out, is part of the appeal. It really feels like hard work – and the fact that there is no delete button means that you need to think about every letter you slam down.  (There is obviously also no save button either, but that’s irrelevant, unless you’re prone to writing outdoors on windy days and have something against paperweights).

Trading my MacBook for a typewriter has made me infinitely more productive.  When I sit down with my typewriter, I have no choice but to lay into it and write until either I or the machine decide I can’t take it anymore. And, seeing as my Olivetti is nearly twice my age, I’d be foolish to bet on the typist.

The reaction I’ve gotten so far from my colleagues has generally been "What the hell are you doing with that?"

Fair enough, but it turns out I’m not the only one who has decided to unplug. (Yet another advantage of the typewriter over the laptop, by the way, no batteries or electrical cables). A whole generation of computer users in New York seem to also be discovering the appeal of typewriters, according to Jessica Bruder writing in The New York Times in March (Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh... , Mar. 31).

"Manual typewriters," wrote Bruder, "aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid."

And how right they are. Writing on my Olivetti is a dirty job, and it’s loud enough to wake my neighbors. But dammit, it just makes me feel like I’m writing.

Other articles from this issue