Why I Switched to Writing on a Manual Typewriter

by Jason DeGray

Like most people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, I grew up with technology. Typing and computers class were on an Apple II-E, we used the big floppy discs and got to play Oregon Trail or Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego on Fridays.  Speaking of games, my first console was the Atari 2600.  I still love Pitfall and Space Invaders to this very day.

As I grew, so did the tech. The old Apple computers gave way to newer better machines and those eventually gave way to smartphones. The Atari gave way to the NES which gave way to Playstation and Xbox. I watched in amazement as the internet grew from a novelty to the reality shaping force that it is today. Now everywhere I look technology has saturated our lives. Every aspect of our existence is filtered through some sort of gadget or “smart” connection.  As a writer this includes (and has always included) my writing.  I have been writing on word processors and computers for as long as I can remember.  When I sat down to write it was often in front of a screen of some sort. It’s just the way it was—the way it is—and nobody really thought anything of it. After all, it was the way of the future and all that jazz.

But the way of the future has since become less of a tool and more of a mechanical crutch. We don’t use it to get work done so much as we use it to do work for us. Minimum effort for maximum output. Add to it the distractions that are literally programmed into our devices and the plight of the modern artist begins to take shape. Artists across all mediums aren’t really creating art so much as they are letting technology create the art for them.  For these reasons I stepped away from all of these convenient and smart devices and started using a manual typewriter in all my initial creative endeavors.

Distractions are everywhere. As I said above, they are literally programmed into the devices that are part of our everyday lives.  So many posts or memes in writing groups have to do with being too distracted to write. As much as writers like to chuckle at these posts (laugh reacts only!), we do so because they ring true. And when we are supposed to be spending time in our creative zones these constant distractions are nothing to laugh about. They are keeping us from getting work done and it takes people 30 minutes to refocus after getting distracted. A manual typewriter, on the other hand, doesn’t do that. It is a tool in the purest sense of the word.  These elegant yet simple machines were invented to aid in the writing process instead of hijacking it.  The typewriter will never send you social media notifications. It’ll never tempt you to go down a Google or Youtube rabbit hole “just for a minute (You know, to look for inspiration.).” It will simply wait for the writer to pour their thoughts onto paper—actual paper—that they will never have to worry about losing in a computer crash or deleted from a cloud or stored on obsolete devices. I can’t tell you how much of my writing is trapped on obsolete devices.

It’s very satisfying watching the stack of typed paper grow.

A manual typewriter encourages the creative process instead of hindering it.  That’s saying nothing about the actual word processing programs themselves. If I had a dollar for every time a red or green squiggly line derailed my thought train I wouldn’t have to worry about selling books because I’d be a millionaire. I can (and have) wasted hours of precious writing time rearranging or rewriting a single paragraph just to get those damned lines to disappear.  And to add to that, once I see one squiggly line I have a tendency to go back and reread everything I just wrote.  Editor mode kicks in and my creative burst of inspiration is wasted on pointless stuff like looking for synonyms for ‘reassured’ when I should’ve been focusing on getting my ideas down and editing them later. This isn’t a problem on my typewriter. It’ll type out any word, sentence, or paragraph with absolutely no outside input. There’s no running word and page count for me to constantly glance at and stress over. It’s simply there to aide me in getting my thoughts down on paper—helping me do the work, but not doing the work for me. Exactly like a proper tool should. Editing comes later when I sit down with a pen and a cup of coffee. After that, and only after that, do I give my writing over to the tech monster. Sure there are extra steps involved, but they are helpful and daresay necessary steps. They are steps in the creative process untainted by technological influence. My writing is better because of it. I write more and am distracted less. Typing on a manual typewriter leaves you alone with your thoughts in a way that trying to write on a computer or other electronic device can’t.

Thoughts are the most sacrosanct things we have as humans. They are the one thing that could never be taken away from us. Our thoughts were our own and we were free to express them, popular or not, however we chose. The more technology takes over our lives the less control we have over our own thoughts. The last frontier of humanity is slowly being invaded by Trojan horses offering us easy and effortless production. “Let us think for you,” our devices seem to whisper to us, “We will tell you what is right. How to feel. How to talk. How to act.” As dystopian as that seems, it isn’t far from the truth. Meanwhile my typewriter sits quietly waiting for me to tell it what’s on my mind without prejudice, without fear of a ban for saying something outside the realm of popular thought, without trying to correct every little mistake I make and suggest how I should do it better. (Seriously. If you could see the mistakes on this rough draft I typed up you might break out in hives) My typewriter gives me the freedom to be myself, unedited, uncensored and unfiltered. And that is true freedom.

Perhaps the most compelling reason I started writing manually again was due to some interesting research I came across. This research found that whenever we are engaged with our devices our brains are put into the same state we are in when in creative mode. Suddenly I understand why it’s so hard to start writing after playing video games or scrolling through my phone. What this means is that we are feeding our technology our creative energies in a very real sense. It is freely taking our most precious gifts from us and giving us little in return. We have nothing to show for it except for the work that has been filtered through our technology—not as a tool, but as a means to do the work for us. Think about it. Writers don’t have to learn how to write any more. There are programs out there to take over every aspect of the process. The same goes for visual artists, photographers and musicians. We feed input into machines, they refine it and spit a carbon-copy product back to us. That truly creative process has been diluted if not stripped away altogether and people wonder why art is suffering!

Being creative in any way is about friction. It’s about being uncomfortable, uncertain and subject to a degree of suffering. This is what drives an artist to produce their best work, to see the world in a way they hadn’t previously seen it. No great art was ever made from a place of comfort. Conversely, no great art was ever made by a machine. Have you read some of the books written by AI programs? Seen some of the “art” they’ve created? Derivative and trite. Garbage in, garbage out. It’s a gimmick. When you take the human element out of any endeavor it ceases to become the product of human creativity and ingenuity. It doesn’t matter how much of our creative energy we feed into them, our machines have no souls.

So if you are serious about writing (or any creative profession for that matter) step away from the machines and start using tools again. Art can only improve by taking back ownership of our creative processes and being proud of what we accomplish, flaws and imperfections included. We are only human, after all.

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