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.

Pomera Digital 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.

Words matter!

With thanks to Ruth Kissane and Susan Dworski.

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2 replies on “David McCullough’s Essential Advice About Writing + the Virtues of Analog

  1. It was good to hear what he had to say. And I also liked that they had glasses of water on the table and not plastic bottles of water.

  2. Hello Sally. (🤗)
    I wish I had,..a little more,
    of `something else‘,
    to give you,…
    but I‘m bonked, in the moment. 🫣

    You wrote, though, today: “Words matter!”,..
    I gotta let `cha hear…it. 🙂

    I love reading your work.
    It picks me up, at times,…
    when I really need it.

    It often pushes me to `new‘ thought….🤔

    It always makes me smile. 🙃

    Your work is really appreciated.
    I wish you…..a day as you would like (☺️).

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