Curing writer’s block with a typewriter

Saturday, January 25th, 2014 by dparker90

After reading about Renée’s adventures with the Altair 8800b, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experiences at the MAL last week. I’d spent Wednesday morning preoccupied by a travel grant application, trying to write a convincing argument about why I deserve to get paid to read old books in faraway libraries. After several hours writing, cutting, and pasting, I was left with an unsatisfying three sentences. As usual, I’d been paralyzed by the importance of the project and rendered incapable of putting words on the page. I left for the MAL in my frustration, hoping that playing with Google Glass might stimulate my creative faculties, or at least provide a much-needed distraction.

Like Angie, I found my experience with Glass slightly underwhelming, probably due to my inability to look at both screen and outside world at the same time. I think what’s supposed to make this gadget cool is it’s ability to superimpose the Google interface into your direct line of sight so that you’re looking at the world through it, but I couldn’t help continuing to view them separately. The Glass blocked my vision rather than augmenting it, though perhaps with more use I’d adapt to this. After all, it took me 2 months to make the transition from Blackberry to iPhone keyboards without hitting multiple letters at once.

Craving something more analogue after my experience with Glass, I turned to the Olympia De Luxe Typewriter. I have to echo Renée here when I say that this machine really put up a fight. Assuming that loading paper would be self-explanatory, I didn’t check for instructions. I think my incorrect assumption is indicative of our standardized and commodified “user friendly” electronics, where using an iPad, iPhone, or MacBook for the first time feels instinctive. Not so with Ms. Olympia De Luxe, who continually resisted my efforts to unriddle her.

Finally managing to load paper, I set to typing. I began the experience with Parikka’s text in mind, aware that the possibilities of what I could create on the typewriter were limited by the technological constraints of the machine itself. This proved partially correct, as I was obviously unable to alter text once it was printed on the page. Putting ink on the page initially felt limiting in its tangibility and permanence – there was no going back after pressing a key. However, as I continued to write, I found that the finitude of ink on page had an advantage: I was forced to construct complete, meaningful sentences before putting them on paper.

Of course, compared to the seemingly endless possibilities for writing and editing offered by modern Word processors, the typewriter was limited. Yet, in the knowledge that what I put on the page would stay on the page, I began to think before writing each word, resulting in cohesive, thoughtful prose. Taking another stab at my grant proposal, I found that the slower pace of writing offered by Olympia forced me to collect my thoughts before putting them to paper and improved the quality of my writing.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s better to write on a typewriter, or that the finished product turns out any better with this technology, but I do think my experience with Olympia says much about the limitations – or seeming lack thereof – of modern Word processors. In my case, at least, the overwhelming possibilities of what can appear on the page sometimes prevent me from writing anything. Once something does get written, I can’t stop editing and rewriting until the inevitable deadline, and who’s to say that the resulting product is any better than it’d be on a typewriter? Paradoxically, even when technologies promise endless creative possibilities, we are subject to their limitations.

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3 comments on “Curing writer’s block with a typewriter

  1. “Paradoxically, even when technologies promise endless creative possibilities, we are subject to their limitations” – excellent way to word it. This post resonated with me because I have noticed a definite difference between writing on my computer and writing on my iPad. While these are two modern pieces of technology, their physical differences make for a much different experience; specifically, I type slower on the iPad screen keyboard (with many more typos) which in turn affects my thinking. But I think the machines are different for me psychologically as well. The computer has been the site of “formal” writing for many, many years. The iPad does not carry that psychological weight; it was purchased more for fun than work. It feels a less imposing, more creative space–and I think it’s a mix of its design and this personal history.

  2. kylebickoff says:

    I’m also going to latch onto your use of the word “limit.” I’m also going to do some bad math here–you used some variation of “limit” no fewer than 5 times in your response. Moreover, 2 out of 2 of your responses also address this word (100%!) Seriously—there’s a reason we notice this, and respond to this. I would agree with you that compared to “modern Word processors, the typewriter [is] limited,” but I’m not sure that our current word processors have ‘endless possibilities,’ it just might seem that way. In fact, the limits inherent in Microsoft Word, Google Documents, Open Office, etc. are significant.
    I also learned to write research papers, proposals, and notes on a computer-based word processor. In my own experience using word processors, specifically the Xerox 6016 I found the ‘limits’ both jarring and productive. It’s true, one must really formulate complete thoughts before entering them on these systems; this seemed an important exercise for me. Maybe Microsoft Word gives our writing style too much freedom? Maybe we less consider the impact of each word in the sentence, and each letter without fearing the wrath of a misspelling, and instead depend too much upon autocorrect to spell for us and fix our grammar?
    Is it necessarily right to think of limits as ‘bad’ and to think of our contemporary tools as inherently limitless tools which now enable unlimited production?

  3. Lori Emerson says:

    Renee, I think you’ll find this essay very satisfying and totally related to what you’re thinking through here: http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/7/7073/1.html

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