My Olivetti and Me (The Great Typewriter Experiment)

Posted By jdp on Aug 19, 2011 | 0 comments


A few weeks ago I bought a typewriter on eBay. I’ve been curious about the relationship between creativity and the tools with which we document that creativity. How would we change our thought process when composing in a journal versus typing on a computer or typing on a manual typewriter? Writers are superstitious beasts — not unlike professional athletes. So many unseen factors contribute to the ability to create and to perform. As much as anything that influences a writer’s ability to create, external sensory input remains the drug of choice. Ask any writer and they’ll likely have a list of musical artists or genres that encourages creativity. Writers write to music that inspires them, to help create mood and tone in their writing. I wish every book came with the soundtrack that inspired its creation. There’s perhaps no better way to get in the mind of a writer than to listen to the music that spurs them to create. Most often, I write to jazz — Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins are three of my go-to artists — or some melodic post-rock like Eluvium, Balmorhea or Signal Hill.

Why stop with music? We write in coffee shops for the smells as much as the background cacophony — idle chatter, grinders, frothers. We become comfortable in environments. The more these things can become easy, present, necessary and unconscious, the more energy our minds can devote to creativity. In our modern world the computer has become one of those necessary and unconscious beings. How else would we create? Anything else just seems like such a gigantic leap backwards. Word processor? Don’t be silly. It’s just a castrated computer. How would our thought process change if we had to again become conscious of our method of translation from thought to paper.

Grady Tripp sits at his typewriter consumed by his muses.

In Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Grady Tripp finds himself reliant upon a ratty pink bathrobe and narcotics for his muses. He’s stuck in a book he can’t finish. Thousands of pages. An overcomplicated magnum opus that would have made Tolstoy weak in the knees. Grady’s catharsis occurs when he watches the only copy of that novel blow out over a Pittsburgh river. To summarize the excellent book (and perhaps even more excellent film) Grady needed a clean slate. He needed a shock to the system, to be reduced to nothing in order to start over again. A new life. A new novel. An exit from his miserable cycle of self-abuse. In the final scene of the film Grady (Michael Douglas) works on a brand new computer. I’m taking the reverse approach.

Since my depression began earlier this year I’ve been seeing a therapist at least once every other week. From the outset he’s encouraged me to write in a journal to release some of those personal, perhaps damaging thoughts I ignore when I sit down to write fiction. His diagnosis was that I created a fictional character called “Jay.” And in doing so I had become increasingly less present in the world in which I lived. I’m paraphrasing of course. It was these early conversations with my therapist that inspired me to write this bl-g, much of which has been pulled directly from handwritten entries in my journal. Handwriting made writing more personal, thereby bringing me closer to myself. I become astonished at how radically my thought process changed when it was just me, a ballpoint pen and a blank page. I needed to change my perspective. What if I went further?

Cormac McCarthy's Olivetti 32

This led me to the typewriter. Not just any typewriter. A manual typewriter. An Olivetti.

I’m well aware that many authors still compose their first drafts on these “antiques.” Cormac McCarthy, in particular, is well known for using a later model Olivetti, a 32. In 2009, he auctioned his longtime companion (purchased in 1964) that had typed out Pulitzer and National Book Award winners for more than $250,000. He replaced it for $40. Don Delillo writes on a Olympia SM3 DeLuxe. Believe it or not, Joyce Carol Oates writes longhand before typing those notes on a SCM Smith Corona Electra.

My hypothesis is that by removing the unconscious from my writing, I’ll be present and more accountable for the thoughts going onto the page. The typewriter changes the sound, sight, touch and even the smell of writing. By doing so I hope to discover something about my own creative process. Maybe then I’ll figure out how to finish any one of the three novels I’ve started but not finished. Maybe not… but everyone’s got to have a dream. Unfortunately all my dreams also end with every typed page being blown out over the Monongahela.

And in the bittersweet soundtrack to this moment, watching those airborne pages, I hear nothing but “Radio Ballet” by Eluvium.

 

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