When I received this typewriter in the mail on Saturday, I put in a new ribbon and started typing a few things. I bought the machine basically for the cost of shipping, just for fun. I learned to type on an old Olympia just like this one, and I figured I’d write some articles on it, or maybe a few short stories.
It’s amazing how quickly my fingers remembered the feel and natural cadence of a mechanical typewriter. I had so much fun with the old Olympia that I ended up putting in some fresh paper and continuing my chapter in progress. I checked the Neo’s little screen for the last paragraph I had written, retyped it on the Olympia to get the ball rolling, and then started hammering away.
In just two days, I’ve finished that chapter (1,500 words), completed another chapter from start to finish (3,500 words), and written half of yet another chapter (2,000 words), for a total of 7,000 words since Sunday. Yesterday alone I wrote 3,000 words, which is about three times as much as I usually write in a day. Something about that Olympia just encourages writing, and I think I’ve figured out what it is.
I know that plenty of people would look at that old typewriter and wonder why anyone in their right mind would use that obsolete machine for writing when they have several computers with the latest and greatest in word processing software loaded on the hard drive. With a typewriter, you have to pause to reload paper, you can’t correct your writing quickly, and you can’t shuffle paragraphs around via cut-and-paste. The typewriter is much noisier, you have to retype or scan every page if you want a digital copy, and the keys are much harder to press than those on a computer keyboard. So why would I neglect the PC in favor of a forty-year-old piece of machinery that can’t interface with the modern world without the help of a scanner or fax machine?
I’ve come to realize that the limitations of the typewriter are precisely its strengths when it comes to the creative process, at least for me. (You’ll notivce that the typewriter shares many of the properties I am about to list with another favored writing tool of mine, the Alphasmart Neo.)
- There are no distractions, because the typewriter is a single-purpose device. I can’t Twitter, check email, or go off on a Wikiwander. All I can do with the typewriter is to put in a clean sheet of paper, and start writing. Computers are bad for productivity because they are hooked up to the Internet, which is the biggest time sink known to mankind. (Also, there’s something far more inviting about a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper on the platen, than a Word screen waiting for text input with that blinking cursor.)
- The mechanics of the typewriter force me to write in one direction only, and that’s ahead. I can’t mess around with paragraphs and sentences once they’re committed to paper. My inner editor has no power over me when I am on a machine where revision means having to retype the whole page. Rewriting comes later, but for a first draft, you need to forge ahead and get it down onto paper. With a typewriter, you have no choice but to write, rather than endlessly revise on the fly. I also find that I tend to write things out more precisely in my head, rather than thinking on the screen.
- Because I type out everything as physical copy, I have a built-in second revision pass. When I have a sufficient stack of typewritten pages next to the machine, I can take the copy and mark it up with a pen before typing the revised version into a Word document on the PC. I’m forced to revise the entire thing, word for word, which is something that I do in electronic form anyway. Also, at the end of the process, I automatically have a hardcopy of the first draft.
- The act of writing is much more pleasurable on a typewriter than on a PC. This is most definitely a subjective factor, but I get a great deal of enjoyment out of working with the typewriter. I love the feel of the keys under my fingers, the sound of the type slugs hitting the platen, the little “ding” that tells me I’m near the margin, and the smooth motion of the carriage when I work that return lever. I love setting the line spaces with a mechanical switch that clicks at each position, and setting the margins with spring-loaded mechanical sliders. After using the Olympia for a few days, going back to a laptop keyboard feels like typing on a tabletop. My fingers started their typing habit on a mechanical typewriter, and they fell back into the pattern gladly. (I now realize that the proprietary six-finger system I still use originated on my grandparents’ old typewriter–my young fingers didn’t have the strength to touch-type on that old machine, so I had to use my strongest fingers to mash the keys.) I love the smell of the thing, and I love seeing a growing stack of pages next to it as I work, physical and tangible proof of my labor. I love the fact that it’s a little harder to use than a computer, and that I have to rely on the spell checker between my ears. I love producing a draft page that is error-free from top to bottom, even though it’s only a first draft that will be marked up with ink soon enough.
I’m not saying that I’ll only write on the typewriter from now on. Every tool has its place in the tool belt, and in the end, the old Olympia is just another tool. (When you start claiming that you can “only write with item XYZ”, you end up making little procrastination rituals for yourself–those are the kinds of writers who can only get started after sharpening twenty pencils, or putting on their writing sweater, or needing to be in a certain spot at a certain time. That way lies avoidance, because sooner or later you’ll be without your talisman, and then you can’t get busy.) I am quite sure, however, that the old Olympia on my desk is going to see a lot more pages written on it in the future. It just fits my workflow too well to be relegated to museum status.