Returning to Analog: Typewriters, Notebooks, and the Art of Letter Writing

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From The Millions:

In 2009, Cormac McCarthy sold his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter at Christie’s for $254,500. With it, he wrote close to five million words over the course of five decades, including his highly regarded novels The Road and Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy, which brought him commercial success. Rather than graduate to a computer after the sale, McCarthy replaced his Olivetti with the exact same model—though one in a newer condition. He valued it because it was lightweight, reliable, and portable. For these same reasons, this classic Olivetti model was popular with traveling journalists in the ‘60s.

Don DeLillo and Will Self are also loyal typewriter devotees. “Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think,” Self told The Guardian. “You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”

When I first began writing, I would have considered this apparent technophobia as old school—or worse, trendy. Writing can be done anywhere and with anything, can’t it? Writing on a computer is convenient.

I first realized the advantages of analog when observing how my husband, who is a photojournalist, uses his vintage film camera from the ’60s. It is a slow, tedious process, one that many other photographers who have “graduated to digital consider unnecessary, given technological advancements. He spends up to a minute changing each roll of film. A roll contains 12 frames. Between each shot he must wind the crank. For these reasons, a photograph cannot be taken as instantly as it could be with a digital camera. The film is costly to buy and to develop. You can’t check the frames as you take them. These might sound more like disadvantages, but his photographs, taken during a trip to Cuba and Mexico two summers ago, went on to win the people stories prize at World Press Photo 2017 and were published widely and exhibited internationally.

One disadvantage of digital photography is the temptation for photographers to check their pictures while they’re still shooting. The thumbnails on that tiny display screen often look better than they actually are when enlarged on your computer screen. The digital photographer relaxes—“I’ve got this,” they think, perhaps preemptively.

With film there are fewer distractions like this tendency to self-assess as you go along, and the financial and speed limitations encourage a more mindful process. To avoid wasting precious film and energy, the photographer must frame the picture more carefully. The results are consequentially more often better thought out; the composition more exact. The editing process is also more arduous, given the need to scan contact sheets. You spend more time with your pictures and get to know them better.

The pictures, though fewer in quantity than their digital counterparts, are usually better.

. . . .

There is something romantic about the notion of writing in a notebook, though unfortunately I can only sustain it short-term for journalling and the jotting down of ideas; my writing is so small that it’s sometimes illegible even to me, and I can’t imagine having the wrist power to write an entire first draft with pen and paper.

During that summer in Cuba with my husband, I realized how dependent I had become on the Internet for everything; I also learned how much of a distraction it can be from the things I really want to get done. It was the summer of 2016 and Internet access was hard to come by in the country. You had to go to an Internet point and pay about $5 an hour for an Internet card. Even then, the Internet was slow and many websites were censored. Often these Internet zones were on the street; they were easy to recognize, for crowds with smartphones and laptops would be gathered sitting on the sidewalk, despite the stifling humidity. An unusual sight in a country that is not connected. An uncomfortable place to write anything more than a few emails.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says everyone should use the creative tools they prefer, whether they are in fashion or not.

For his own work, PG is 500% digital.

Long ago, PG’s mother made him take a high school typing class. She said it would help him in college. Looking back at the intervening years, it was the single most important class he ever attended.

PG was a good typist. He not only used his typewriter for all his college papers, he also earned money typing other people’s college papers. Later, he typed his answers to bar exams on two different occasions with good results.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing, but, if it existed at all, TPV would be much more abbreviated than it is if PG weren’t still a rapid typist. When he had two paralegals working for him, PG would dictate some documents and type others himself.

Having used both film and digital cameras as part of his semi-serious photography pursuits, PG says digital is much better. For one thing, if he is photographing a location he may never visit again, he immediately knows if he got the shot or not. He’ll take 20 or 30 different photos of the same thing to make sure he has captured it from the best angle and with the best light.

His film and slide photos sit in boxes, the only copies of many important moments. As is their nature, they’re deteriorating as the chemicals used to create them age. PG’s digital photos (including some film photos he has scanned) are backed up to the max with copies existing on a couple of different nearby hard drives as well as up in a couple of separate computer clouds. Every copy of a digital photo looks exactly the same as every other copy of the photo. He understands bit rot is a thing which is why he rewrites his digital files to disk on a regular basis.

PG has physical writing tools nearby at his desk, but only because he can multitask while speaking on the phone better with a pen than with a keyboard. He scans important written notes onto his computer after he finishes the call.


21 thoughts on “Returning to Analog: Typewriters, Notebooks, and the Art of Letter Writing”

  1. I used to type (well, hunt and peck) on mechanical typewriters. First a cheapie manual Smith Corona and later an electric Olivetti.

    The moment I could afford a computer, any computer, I had my papers scanned and ocr’ed and I ditched the boat anchor.

    Never looked back.
    No nostalgia here.

    • Me neither. The computer keyboard has enabled me to write at the speed of thought. When I wrote on a typewriter, the words in my head weren’t necessarily the same as the ones that came out on the paper. Not anymore. Now the words in my head come out exactly as I think them.

      I don’t need a typewriter to slow me down to make my writing better. That’s what comes with experience. The more I write, the better I write.

  2. My experience has been pretty much identical to PG’s, except that it was an uncle who harassed me until I took a typing course in high school. For me too that turned out to be the single most important class I ever took in any school anywhere. It permitted me to type my papers in college and mostly get better marks than I deserved, then I lugged a portable typewriter to three bar exams and typed those as well. I attribute passing each of those bar exams on the first try almost entirely to the fact that the examiners didn’t have to try to translate my handwriting to figure out if I knew anything about the law. My uncle passed away many years ago, but I have silently thanked him for what he did for me more times than you can possibly imagine.

  3. Like all writers I know, I love and hoard notebooks. But typewriters? Nooooo. As I write this I’m looking at the massive vintage typewriter my dad bought me when I was 15. It was pretty ancient even then. Now it’s a museum piece. I love it and it makes a wonderful ornament but I would never go back to writing on it. And it gave me bursitis.

  4. I’m currently writing the first draft of my novel on a 1935 Underwood Champion. Computers are for porn and cute cat videos. I could just never find any inspiration sitting in front of a computer.

    • Computers are also for uploading to ebookstores and managing your promos and sales or, alternately, building and maintaining the social media footprint traditional publishers require before they even look at a manuscript.

  5. ‘Bit rot is a thing’????
    Oh horrors. Don’t tell me I need to do something with a bunch of stored digital pictures….

    I still have an old Underwood Olivetti in its carrying case. That thing is heavy. Haven’t used it for 40 years.

    • “‘Bit rot is a thing’????”

      As is having a drive die – you know – the drive that ‘had’ the one and only copy of the story you’d just finished and were going to send to your editor tomorrow? Backup often! Backup and confirm the copy is good! Backup and have at least one copy offsite/in the cloud where a fire or burglary doesn’t mean it’s gone!

      (I didn’t lose the whole story – only the last three weeks worth of work a couple months ago – but I’d really like those three weeks back rather than trying to remember everything I’d added in that missing time.)

  6. To each his own. I’ve never taken a typing class although I have spent the majority of my working life with my fingers on a keyboard. I used to call my typewriter “my many-nippled mistress.” I’m far less creepy now.

    I’ve always been a slow typist. My speed increased when I smashed a shoulder in a bicycling accident, which made all typing painful. I discovered that the Dvorak keyboard hurt less and I eventually became faster on the Dvorak layout.

    Long ago, I fought my way through a couple of theses with whiteout. Never again.

    The argument that a typewriter forces an author to be more mindful is bogus, IMHO. Mindfulness comes from inside. No tool is a shortcut to a mindful attitude, typewriters included. Oblivious writers will not suddenly sense nuances of language when they switch to a typewriter and even less when they start chiseling their immortal words in stone.

    Buying Cormac McCarthy’s $254,000 typewriter won’t help either.

    • Quite correct, sir. With the discipline, it does not matter what tool you use – without it, you produce garbage.

      Perhaps the OP should acquire some clay and a nice stick – that would really make her think before committing “literature.”

  7. I was wondering how she gets whatever she’s written onto the interwebz. Does she need to re-type or is it possible to scan the completed document somehow? Didn’t see that mentioned in the article.

    Beyond that, to each their own.

  8. Nope, I’m not back to the days of White Out and being forced to repeatedly type pages in order to have them perfect (and I am a fair typist or used to be). Editing on a typewriter really is my idea of hell.

  9. A local company restored my grandfather’s Royal that he used in the Navy during World War II, and I typed, so far, one book on it. It’s still sitting on a shelf in my bedroom, but my living situations over the past several years have precluded using it because of the noise.

    I’m getting married soon and once my wife and I are settled, I’m going to oil that machine and start using it regularly again.

    When you type with two fingers and really get going, it sounds like a machine gun!

  10. I have often thought the same thing about my typing classes: most valuable time I spent in school. The class was taught by a guy who didn’t know how to type — filling in for a teacher who was unavailable. He had students write letters in ink on their fingers, showing what letters were hit with a given finger in a top-to-bottom list. He told us to look at our fingers at random times for a few weeks — till the letters were burned into our brains. It worked.

    • I managed to learn to touch-type. This was a problem for a while, as I could lock-up Word and be forced to re-boot. Thanks be for a newer version of the software and a DAS Keyboard! (Except… my cat has learned that when the clicking stops, she is more likely to get attention, and so appears the instant I lift my hands for more than 30 seconds. Oops.)

  11. I love the idea of an old fashioned typewriter but can’t imagine not having a computer, or digital camera, either. I do like to write some things by hand and jotting down notes when I’m brainstorming to myself is better with pen and paper. I guess I’m a hybrid.

    What I have noticed, though, when taking notes (I’m a PA and take a lot of meeting notes), I take more in when I write by hand. I don’t know why that is, and it saves time to type the notes on a laptop in the meeting, but I always seem to remember better if I’ve written them by hand and then type them onto the computer. Odd.

    • There are different kinds of memory that are activated when you write by hand as compared to typing. For some people, typing notes is a bit like being a court reporter – the words go from ear to screen without being processed and stored for the long-term. Writing by hand seems to work differently, and more gets stored in memory, even when you are not really trying to recall but to transcribe. I think in my case, there is far more focus as well when I write by hand.

      • That makes sense! I capture so much more by typing, because of the speed, but then when it comes time to make sense of it, I find myself having trouble recalling the conversation that sparked the notes.

Comments are closed.