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

1. 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. I was starting to notice an obvious parallel to my own experience of writing on a laptop, and soon began looking for an analogue solution. Pen and paper was the obvious alternative—writers like Truman Capote and Vladimir Nabokov always managed without a computer in the past. More contemporary, Neil Gaiman has written many books longhand, including Stardust and American Gods. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and J.K. Rowling also prefer penning their first draft. 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. Initially being Internet-free seemed impossible—how would I keep up with freelance writing commissions? How would I upload photos of what I was eating or where I was on Instagram, or keep in touch with friends back home? What about responding to urgent emails? I came to realize that there were no urgent emails—most could wait. Without the distractions of social media, I was able to write for myself and read more than 20 books in just one month. I will keep this up when I go home, I thought, but back in London it was far too easy to switch the modem back on and resume procrastination. Alarm set for 9 a.m.—coffee and toast, followed by four solid hours of writing time. I open Word, write a sentence, then rewrite it. I tell myself not to self-edit, but the delete button is like a bag of unshelled pistachios—too easy, so you keep eating—or in this case pressing. Some time goes by before I find myself scrolling down my Facebook feed, checking emails, refreshing the page. I wonder how I ended up here, and then I realize I don’t have the will power I believed I possessed. An important email arrives, and reply I must. Morning writing session over. We as consumers seek convenience, though convenience is often made with the objective of encouraging compulsiveness and habit in users. We’re propelled to keep pressing buttons, opening clickbait articles, and liking mundane posts by acquaintances on social media. With time, I began to realize that the option to self-edit your own writing as you go along is also seldom a conscious choice. I would spend hours rereading a sentence and dissecting it, when perhaps I should have written with the objective to finish and then rewrite the completed, albeit imperfect, first draft. It was this need for a slower and more deliberate process, coupled with Will Self’s recent pessimistic prediction about the future of the novel, that reminded me of what he had said about his preference for a typewriter back in 2008; he perceived the slowness it requires as a good thing. The computer has liberated us in more ways than it has constrained us; while trawling through my dissertation on a laptop during my final year of university, I remember feeling a grain of sympathy for those who lived before the digital age, who would have to write first, second, and sometimes third drafts of essays longhand. Even for those who could not hit "delete" on a typewriter if they misspelt a word or wanted to change the word order. The Internet has also democratized art in that talented creators from all backgrounds can share their work and self-promote from anywhere and everywhere using social media. Publishers are turning to blogs and platforms such as Instagram and Blogspot in pursuit of the next big thing. Patrons are increasingly self-starters who are interested in new, diverse voices who have not necessarily followed a traditional path to develop their craft. Though for all their advantages, technological advances have also made us accustomed to instant gratification, and we expect results faster. We’re used to working alongside multiple distractions in multiple tabs and windows: a conversation with a friend in messenger, an interesting tangent on Wikipedia, that funny cat video your mum knew you’d like. With a computer in front of me, I seldom have a moment for quiet and self-reflection. There’s always something to keep me occupied—and if there’s not, I can be distracted at the click of a button—which is detrimental to creativity. Sometimes constraints are what we need to work well. As Stanford professor of management science (and bestselling author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t) Robert I. Sutton points out, most—if not all creative feats—are created by people facing constraints. During the Renaissance, when patrons commissioned artists to produce works, the contracts would specify what was required for a given project—the deadline, the colors, the style, the materials used, etc. The artist would have had a degree of freedom within these constraints. [millions_ad] 2. I resolved to buy a typewriter to set myself some constraints and reap the benefits of being alone with a page and a legible font that is thankfully not my own handwriting. I travel regularly, so after considering the Brother typewriter, and various similar lightweight models, decided upon the Olivetti Lettera 32. Aside from knowing it’s the model used by Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite living writers, it’s a beautiful machine and a retro design piece. In a past life, my mother had worked a brief stint as a secretary, like many women of her generation dissuaded from more risqué jobs and encouraged to do something “respectable” (she later left her desk to pursue her dream of becoming a musician). Feeling like we had swapped places, I recruited her to help on my search for the perfect typewriter. She would be able to test it and ascertain the condition. After explaining my reasoning for returning to analog, she suggested I instead look at getting an electronic typewriter so I wouldn’t have to replace the tape. She had been glad to see the back of the typewriter, which was slow, noisy, and often broke down. I told her I wanted that kind of slow, awkward process. “Bit weird,” she’d said, seeing that I couldn’t be swayed, “but okay.” Buying and using a typewriter is expensive—but I see it as an investment. Analog generally outlives digital and is less likely to decrease in value. I purchased a refurbished turquoise Olivetti Lettera 32 from Gramercy Typewriters in New York City. The family-run business has been around since 1932 and their knowledge and skills have been passed down through three generations. The familial old-world feel inside the shop contrasts with the hum of the traffic and crowds outside on the streets. 3. In recent months I’ve drastically reduced my time on social media, and I’ve found that returning to analog has helped me reconnect. We’re in a world where we’re always connected, but we lack intimacy. I’ve rediscovered the art of letter writing—in a letter, you can only say what you really need or want to say as space is finite. There’s something exciting about sending and receiving mail. I like holding in my hand a letter, knowing it’s something tangible I can return to, unlike the old messages and emails that get buried in long-running conversations by memes, links, and cute emoticons. Then there’s knowing that someone went the extra mile for you, that they deemed you important enough to write to. My Moleskine has found a place again in my handbag, and though I’m unlikely to write anything fully-formed in it, it’s there in case an idea appears while I’m in a cafe, in a train, or on a plane. It’s there in case I grow tired of other mediums, which happens in the same way that I sometimes grow tired of a given working environment and need to relocate. Writing on a typewriter is slower than typing on word. It’s more expensive—I have to replace the ribbon and regularly buy more paper. It’s a bulky thing to carry around. But as I hit the keys, I hear the sound, and I’m more aware I’ve just written a word. I put more care into carefully crafting each sentence in my mind before I write. Advantageously for me, given my indecisive disposition, with a typewriter I can’t dwell on a section for weeks or months; with no backspace, you have to write to finish. The tidying up of awkward prose can come later. You’re forced to reread and at least write second drafts to smooth out inevitable typos. The laptop can come back for edits. Most importantly, perhaps, there are fewer distractions. The desire to make another cup of tea is perhaps the most pervasive. Another advantage of analog, one which I hadn’t considered prior to reducing my screen-time, is the reduction of computer-related eye strain caused by looking at bright screens, reflections, and glare. Around 50 percent to 90 percent of office employees who work primarily on a computer suffer from eye strain—and other annoying visual symptoms as a consequence, such as eye floaters and red eye. Migraine aura sufferers often have a visual aura triggered by looking at a flickering screen. Switching to a new medium in any discipline will not automatically make you a better artist—that requires both talent and commitment. But it can teach you to slow down, disconnect, reconnect, and in this instance favor quality over quantity—and completion over counterintuitive perfectionism. Photo courtesy of the author.

Writing During Your Daily Commute: The Story of Fiona Mozley’s ‘Elmet’

Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London. She missed the landscape of northern England, which is where she grew up and where Elmet is set. Jotting down notes on her smartphone and laptop, she attempted to evoke this landscape during her daily commute, allowing a temporary respite from the daily grind. Though we seldom see people writing on trains, many commuters read or browse aimlessly on their smartphones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer of The Millions, spoke of her subway writing habit in "Writing on Trains." “With a combined total of six hours spent on a subway a week, it felt like extra time,” she says. Mandel sought out other writers who wrote on trains, including memoirist Julie Klam and novelist Joe Wallace. Klam appreciated the need to beat the clock and get down thoughts before her station, as opposed to the long hours she’d spend writing at home on her Mac. Many authors cite smartphones and the Internet as hindrances to creative writing. When Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he did nothing but write from nine am to 10.30 pm for four weeks, during which time he wouldn’t go near his phone or email. In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King suggested writers eliminate distraction; “There should be no telephone in your writing room,” he wrote, “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.” Analogue writing setups of the past would offer fewer opportunities for distraction; the view from the open window and the kettle perhaps being the most enticing. Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan still write their first drafts longhand, while Cormac McCarthy still types his manuscripts on an Olivetti Lettera 32. When used productively, modern day technology can be transformed from a creativity-killing distraction to a convenient tool to note down those epiphanies or observations that would otherwise be forgotten. If Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World holds any truth, modern technologies will soon become more integrated into our daily life. “You could essentially in the not too distant future, tweet thoughts,” Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University tells Herzog. “So not type your little tweet, but think it, press a button, and all of your followers could potentially read it.” One day we might be able to transcribe words directly from our minds onto the page. The importance of writing, in the traditional sense, is evolving. Perhaps the romantic notion of putting a pen to paper might start to wane, as we see the value of being able to pluck ideas straight from the unconscious mind. Unlike many in her field, Fiona Mozley embraced the convenience of technology. “When I started writing Elmet I used a Chromebook–one of those cheap laptops made by Google, which require the use of online apps,” she tells me. "That meant that the only word-processor available to me was Google Docs. That made it very easy to write on either my laptop or my phone as it was all the same document.” "I find variety to be a real aid to writing,” she continues. "If I’m in a rut, I find the best remedy is moving to another location or altering my media. So if I’ve been writing for a while on my computer and I get stuck, I’ll go and pick up a pen and paper, or vice versa. The phone writing is really just tied to that overall process." The author wrote the first few paragraphs of her debut novel in spring 2013. She had just visited her parents for the weekend in West Yorkshire, a region previously known as Elmet, a Celtic Kingdom, between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was early on a Monday morning and she was returning to London by train. The importance of trains and train tracks in Elmet is emphasized even in the opening paragraphs: I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked. I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear the voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood. And the lick of flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste. I keep to the railways track. I hear an engine far off in the distance and duck behind a hawthorn. “The novel is all about isolation and marginalization, and being invisible in plain sight,” explains Mozley, "so it’s important that there are the trains running from London to Edinburgh just meters away from the little house in the copse, but none of the people on those trains knows anything about the lives being led there.” While writing the early sections of her first draft, Mozley was working for a travel company in Central London and would jot down ideas on her smartphone during her journeys to and from work. Mozley says: the sentences and paragraphs I wrote on my phone during my commute were very useful for keeping up the momentum. Sometimes when you’re writing–particularly if you’re working full time–you can have periods of writing nothing at all. Even if I found myself unable to write full sections, jotting ideas down on my phone meant that I felt a constant sense of progression. Later in the writing process, Mozley got a MacBook and started using the popular writing app Scrivener. “It's designed specifically for long writing projects, whether they’re novels or PhDs,” she says, "I find it to be a useful way of organizing chapters, drafts and research. There is an accompanying app for phones called Scrivo, which I also have. However, I don’t write much on my phone anymore because I don’t have a daily commute.” [millions_ad] Despite its contemporary context, reading Elmet, one cannot fail but notice that otherworldly quality. Writing the novel was a means of escapism for Mozley, who was not particularly content living in London. She elaborates: London is a wonderful city, but it is a very difficult place to live unless you have an incredibly high salary or you come from a rich background. I have friends from university who still live there, who will never be able to afford a flat or house that they don’t share with several others. When I lived in London, there were five of us sharing a house and we didn’t have a communal living area because we’d had to turn it into an extra bedroom. For a while I shared a bedroom with a friend to keep the costs down. This kind of thing is typical, and while you could say that it’s normal or acceptable when you’re straight out of university, this is the kind of situation that my friends will be in for the foreseeable future, into their forties or even beyond. These are people with degrees from the University of Cambridge, and people who have good jobs - they’re just not lawyers or bankers. I left London a few years ago and returned to Yorkshire, where I have a much better quality of life. It would be a shame for London, however, if all the writers and artists are forced out. With Elmet, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a rent strike. I wanted to toy with the idea of all renters getting together and refusing to pay their landlords. They all just decide to live in their houses for free. As a university graduate with no formal qualification in creative writing, and without external incentives or a deadline, the writing of Elmet came from within. It was something to distract from Mozley’s daily commute and financial hardships. She initially wrote with no long-term goals of publication: I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, so I wrote Elmet in order to have something outside of myself to think about. I guess you could call it "writing as therapy," but it ended up being much more public. The otherworldly quality was always deliberate. Although it’s a contemporary novel, some of its major concerns are the thrall of history, the weight of the past, and the ways in which those things inform contemporary ways of life. That deliberate otherworldly quality is effective in that we can imagine what lies beyond the train tracks and the fields that once belonged to the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet; and we can for a moment feel what the narrator Daniel sees and feels. Flexibility regarding the process enabled the author to record her astute observations and ideas with whatever she had to hand, as she felt them. As a consequence, the fictional Elmet feels like a world fresh from the unconscious mind. While Elmet was still a work in progress, Mozley took on a role at a literary agency, where she realized that books are written by people not too different from herself. “In a way, I think I had always felt so removed from the sorts of people who become professional writers that it almost seemed like a fantasy profession,” she explains, "like ‘sorcerer’ or ‘superhero,' not something that people actually did." After working at the agency, however, writing professionally seemed a more attainable, realistic goal. Now writing with readers in mind, Mozley thought about what she wanted to convey to readers with Elmet: I like fiction that provokes a sensory response. I wanted to address a number of issues in Elmet, and I would like to make people think, but primarily I want to make people feel. I’m fascinated by the idea that you can write words on a page that someone else goes on to read, and then that person might laugh out loud, or sweat with anticipation, or their breathing might quicken. I love the idea that fiction can have a physical response. Mozley’s taste in literature is eclectic, to say the least. Her favourite opening to a novel is found in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, while one of her favorite endings is in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. “I also read a lot of medieval literature, which unfortunately a lot of people find to be quite inaccessible,” she says. “I suppose Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight might be a good place to start because there are lots of modern editions. It’s not my favorite, though. That would probably be a short Middle English narrative called Cheuelere Assigne, which contains bestiality, swan transformations, and family drama.” Upon leaving the literary agency, Mozley returned to her hometown of York, where she combined working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in Medieval Studies. With this new found confidence, a willingness to write using everything she had at hand at every opportune moment, and the tone imparted to her by the historical documents she worked with during her PhD, Mozley brought us Elmet—a lyrical novel that speaks simultaneously of a country for which I have nostalgia as an expatriate, and a place that seems to belong to the realm of dreams. John, described as a giant, has built a house with his own hands in an isolated wood set in the rugged landscape of rural Yorkshire. He earns money through underground fights, which he seldom loses. He protects his children, the narrator Daniel and his elder sister Cathy, from the real world, which at times seems cruel and unjust. Together they roll cigarettes, hunt for their food—tend to the house as their father goes out for days on end. As readers, we come to realize that their ancient way of life is threatened by the land ownership laws of modernity. And all of this takes place beyond the rail tracks, across the fields, in a place to which you or I will unlikely ever venture. Fiona Mozley is currently halfway through her second novel. “I’m not saying much,” she says, “but I will say that it is very different from Elmet!”