A thinking machine: My retro typewriter and why it’s better than writing on a computer.

vof writing

I own an antique typewriter: a Remington Rand Deluxe Model 5, portable, manufactured in 1948. I bought it on Ebay a couple of years ago for $57, to replace a previous one, the exact same model, that has been in my family for decades and which I actually learned to type on as a child (this was years before we owned a computer). Until about a year ago I very rarely used it, but I liked to have it, as a connection to the way writing was in the past. Then last year, as I began converting to Judaism and observing the Sabbath–which, for me, involves shutting down most electronic devices, at least those that can communicate–my typewriter became much more useful. Now I use it every week, on Saturdays, the day I get the most of my non-academic writing done. I would estimate that about 40% of my recently-completed book The Valley of Forever and 60% of my upcoming (December 2015) novel The Rats of Midnight was written on this machine. This summer I also wrote several short stories entirely on the typewriter.

Two things happened this week, both on Twitter, that got me thinking about my typewriter. I’m considering buying another one, also an antique, and was browsing Ebay; when I mentioned this on Twitter, one of my followers asked me, perhaps sarcastically, if I was buying it as an investment, or because it looked cool, or perhaps I lived in a cave without electricity. I replied that writing without electronic distractions focuses my thoughts and creates a better result, and I also explained about the Sabbath. Then, unrelated to this conversation, I saw this tweet, which I whole-heartedly agree with:

typewriter twitter

I recalled seeing, a couple of months ago, a post come across my Twitter about some kind of conversion kit where you can hook up an antique typewriter to the Internet. Honestly I’ve been expecting such a device to be invented for a while now. Researching this article, I found it, and here it is: a “USB Typewriter Easy Install Kit.” Here is the pitch for this bizarre device:

There is something very magical about typing on those old-school manual typewriters. From the satisfying snap of the spring-loaded keys, to the gleam of the polished chrome accents, to the crisp marks on the printed page, typewriters make for a sublime writing experience. Now, the USB Typewriter Conversion Kit lets you enjoy the magic of writing on a manual typewriter, without forfeiting the ability to use word-processing, email, web-browsing, or other modern desktop conveniences. Instead of fixating on a computer monitor, you can experience the simple joy of typing with ink on paper, and only look up at your monitor when you need to. Or, you can work on your typewriter alone, while discreetly saving your work to disk! (Your USB Typewriter will also make a nifty keyboard-stand for your iPad)

Without sounding like a neo-Luddite, I must say I would never in a million years buy a device like this. Aside from the obvious–you’re missing the damn point, bro!–it seems like this would actually be counterproductive, at least in my case. The whole point of writing on an antique typewriter is to minimize distractions, not compound them. The technological implications of our modern world–which I do have some concerns about–make it increasingly difficult to escape electronic distraction, and it’s especially hard to keep it out of creative space. Nothing against the makers of this product, who obviously mean well, but I would no sooner connect my typewriter to the fire-hose of technological distraction than I would advocate bulldozing a comfortable old farmhouse to put up a prefabricated trailer.

typewriter 1

The keys of my Remington Rand Deluxe Model 5 are almost as crisp and perfect as the day they came out of the factory, when Truman was President.

What’s wrong with writing on a typewriter? Well, it has no cut-and-paste, no spell-check, no auto-save, auto-correct, auto-format, and no backspace (at least not one that offers complete absolution for mistakes or mind-changing–typewriters this old don’t come with “correction ribbon”).

What’s good about writing on a typewriter? It has no cut-and-paste, no spell-check, no auto-save, auto-correct, auto-format, and no backspace. These are the features I like most about it. The simple permanence of the words you put down on the page, and the hassle of changing them once they’re there, makes you think more carefully about what you want to say before you say it. This is why I honestly feel the stuff I write on a typewriter is often better than what I write on a computer. I do often write on my laptop–as I said, I’m not a total Luddite–but the creative process there, I’ve noticed, is much different and takes more time to get “right” than doing it on a typewriter. I found that the sections I’ve written on the Remington I tend to edit much less than the ones I write on computer. I didn’t expect that, but it’s true.

Just to be clear, what I write on the Remington does eventually go into electronic form. (I don’t snail-mail my editor a ream of typewritten pages when it comes time to publish!) How does that process work? I have to scan the typewritten pages into .PDF files, cut and paste the text, then clean it up and format it electronically. Is that a hassle? Sure it is. But it’s also another layer of editing; you can’t help tweak a few substantive things as you’re finishing up the formatting. And I no longer accept “It’s so much easier just to use X [fill in the name of a technological device] in the first place” as a valid excuse, at least without thinking about whether X really is better than not-X. We’re so accustomed to accepting new technologies and new conveniences that we no longer consider their value; we automatically assume, if they’re more advanced, they must be better than whatever it is they’re supposed to replace.

typewriter2

Remington Rand existed as a company from 1927 to 1955, though its progenitors go back long before that, and some of its progeny companies are still in business under other names.

Strictly speaking, a typewriter is actually a pretty advanced piece of technology. My 1948 Remington Rand is a miraculous machine, full of meticulous precise gears, keys and springs that still work more or less perfectly after 67 years. A good typewriter is virtually indestructible–far more dependable than a computer. Woody Allen has typed every script he’s written since the early 1970s on the same old typewriter. If you consider that the vast majority of the great books in human history–The Odyssey, War and Peace, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, etc.–were written in longhand, a typewriter is itself a miraculous advance. I’m sure there were certain sacrifices made in the creative process when writers began using typewriters in the late 19th century, and as a culture we’ve largely accepted those; but you might as well draw a line somewhere. And it’s not an all-or-nothing approach. I use a laptop, email, the Internet and social media every day. They’re quite useful. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to retrofit my 1948 Remington Rand with Bluetooth anytime soon. Some things should be left as they are.

So no, I don’t own an antique typewriter because it “looks cool,” or because the sound of the keys is “magical,” or because I enjoy the “simple joy of typing with ink on paper.” I own an antique typewriter because it helps me with my writing in a way that a more “advanced” technological device can’t do. And I’m not even convinced that a laptop is more advanced than a typewriter. With my Deluxe Model 5, I can work in a power outage by candlelight, on the deck of a boat, in a hostel room in Bucharest or Kathmandu, or in the corner of an antique pub with no WiFi. Your laptop is an expensive door-stop in any of those places. Even when you’re talking about technology, “advanced” is a relative thing.

All photos in this article are by me and copyright (C) 2015 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved.
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10 Comments

  1. I’m sure there are some people who wouldn’t get this, but it is not a matter of what is faster or louder or easier, but a matter of what interacts best with your writing process.

  2. Hi Sean, great article. Regarding your workflow for getting your typewritten pages into digital form, have you tried Google Drive? In Google Drive you upload the hi-res scans of your typewritten pages, in either PDF or JPG. When you right-click on the document you’ll have the option to open it in Google Docs. Google processes the text with their OCR engine, which then appears in a Google Doc which is fully editable. What is also cool is that the image of the scanned page also appears within the same document. Hope this helps.

  3. Great article. I have tried scanning my typewritten pages, but I prefer to re-type them using an alphasmart and then upload to laptop. It takes longer but I think the editing process is more thorough.

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