When brilliant chronicler of American history David McCullough died recently, two people sent me excerpts from obituaries, so apt was his wisdom for Improvised Life. I especially love that the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner’s used a manual Royal Typewriter from 1940 to write his complex, award-winning books:
Working for much of his career in a tiny windowed shed behind his farmhouse in West Tisbury, Mass, on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. McCullough tapped away on a manual 1940 Royal typewriter purchased for $25 in 1965.
“I like the tactile part of it,” he told the New York Times. “I like rolling the paper and pushing the lever at the end of the line. I like the bell that rings like an old train. … I even like crumpling up pages that don’t work. … I don’t like the idea that technology might fail me, and I don’t like the idea that the words are not really on anything.”
It reminded me of Can “Distraction-Free” Devices Change the Way We Write?, a recent New Yorker article about specialized digital tools designed to keep the writer from getting distracted, as a computer so often does. Some, like the Pomera, strip computers down to be more like…a typewriter.
A typewriter IS a distraction-free device, in addition to the many other virtues McCullough named and the pure tactile sense of it. I’ve experienced it myself. One of the best things I ever wrote in my career as a food writer was on a rickety portable electric typewriter without correction mode. I wrote in one long flow, sentences wildly careening into the margins whose settings would not hold, about some local cooks I’d met in a remote town in Appalachia. I sent it as a letter to John Thorne, editor of the wonderful Simple Cooking Newsletter. He wrote to say he wanted to publish it with few changes. It captured the wild essence in a way I never could have on a computer and would become the seed of a much longer piece that would eventually find its way into Saveur.
The tool DOES effect the writing and the process. “Faster” does not mean better…or even faster.
If I were teaching writing, I would have my students listen to five potent minutes of this interview with McCullough (starting at 11:35), which outlines essential lessons for becoming a good storyteller. His quote of the famous line from JFK’s speech at 13:15 is stunning commentary on contemporary verbal expression.
With thanks to Ruth Kissane and Susan Dworski.