Friday Features: The Typewriter Revelations: Overcoming Procrastination (come up with better title tomorrow) by Matt Wixey
By Matt Wixey
I’m a procrastinator. It’s a miracle you’re reading this at all, really.
Some people are born procrastinators, some achieve procrastination, others have it thrust upon them. I don’t think I was born a putter-offer; I actually arrived punctually, the only time that’s happened in the intervening 33 years. But I certainly achieved procrastination (more on thrusting later, insert double entendre of choice here). When I was at school, for example, I didn’t merely leave my homework until the night before it was due; that was for weak procrastinators who lacked commitment. No, being truly dedicated to the pursuit of delay, I put off my assignments for an additional six hours by setting my alarm for four am and starting them the morning they were due. Why would someone do that to themselves, you ask? If you’re not one of us, you won’t understand.
This continued into my adult life. A couple of years ago, I put off a tedious but necessary task for five months, resulting in an uncomfortable lurch in my stomach every time I considered doing it and then didn’t. The anxiety grew and grew in my mind until I finally snapped and completed it.
It took 20 minutes.
In a bid to rid myself of this ridiculous flaw, I read articles and watched talks about procrastination on YouTube (inevitably interspersed by marathon procrastination binges of Funniest Memes compilation videos), and discovered it’s something that afflicts everyone to some degree – but writers seem to be particularly affected.
One reason for this, a theory goes, is that we writers live in our heads, where our ideas are shining and flawless. The story is there, buried but gleaming with promise, just waiting to be excavated and revealed to a grateful world, whereupon it will easily be a bestseller, adored by critics and the public alike. But we put off the process of writing those ideas, because we know that in practice, our stunted vocabularies, leaden dialogue and cliched descriptions mean it will only ever be a crude imitation, like that botched restoration of the painting The Ecce Homo.
Another theory, kinder to the ego, says that writing is hard, and hard things are hard to do, so instead we do easy things, which are easy to do. It’s an odd way to think of a pastime we love, but I think there’s a grain of truth there. It’s possible to need to write, to long to write and to love doing it, but also to dread it. As The Saturdays once sang: “Don’t know if I should hate you or miss you / Damn, I wish that I could resist you.”
My personal theory is that procrastination is thrust upon us, especially nowadays. Our attention spans and critical faculties are rapidly disintegrating in the face of news digests and social media dopamine hits and miniature gobbets of information. If someone sends me a video longer than three minutes, I laugh at the presumption that I have the necessary powers of concentration to pay attention for that long. “What is this, a Martin Scorsese film?” I reply. It wasn’t like this back in the day, was it? Surely we didn’t get distracted by five TV channels and Ceefax, or by texting and Snake II on our primitive phones?
Until recently, internet distractions were my own particular vice. A typical writing session used to go like this: I would load up Word, and occasionally even write a few sentences. But then I’d think: ‘I wonder what’s happened on Twitter in the last seven minutes?’ YouTube, Gmail, eBay and Wikipedia would all follow and, before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to put off doing something else.
It wasn’t that I never managed to write anything. I performed occasional feats of sustained creativity (usually to a deadline) by simply willing myself to not get distracted. But we have a finite amount of willpower, so this only worked for so long.
I tried apps that block your browser for a set period. Two problems with those: first, you need the willpower to activate them in the first place. Second, I used to be an ‘ethical hacker’ – my job was to find security flaws in software. So I know there’s a way around them.
If any of this is ringing an uncomfortable bell, I have a solution. Actually, I have 15.
No, wait. Don’t go. I’m not some nostalgic hipster poseur desperately trying to recapture the past (even though I’ve referenced Ceefax, Snake II, and a 2009 song by The Saturdays). Typewriters are a genuine answer to the distraction problem, and here’s why.
Computers are great for writers. They’re fast, efficient and accessible. They’re brilliant for planning, outlining, editing and posting #amwriting on Twitter. But they really, really suck for writing messy, raw, rough drafts, and that’s what matters when you’re trying to turn that secret gem of an idea into something that doesn’t make you want to curl up and cry at your own paralysing inadequacy.
Their keyboards are flimsy. Their screens glare. They’re impersonal, abstract machines, with distractions built-in by design. Editing is too easy; the Backspace and Delete keys taunt you, tempting you to fix typos rather than progressing. A computer is like a Swiss Army knife: a great multitasker. But not so great for cooking, for example, or whittling (I have very niche frames of reference). For that, you don’t want or need multitasking, but something built for the job.
My typewriter revelation came in 2019 when I was writing a play set in the 1930s. I thought it would be a wheeze to draft it on a period typewriter, so, knowing absolutely nothing about them, I bought one for £80 on eBay. I got lucky; it was a gorgeous 1935 Corona flat-top with glass keys and a glossy black body, like a miniature piano. I did some research on how to clean it and install a new ribbon and started writing.
My word count tripled.
I’m now addicted. In the past 18 months, I’ve bought another 14 (if you think that sounds like a lot, Tom Hanks has 200, although he probably has more storage space than me). The cheapest was five pounds. The dates of manufacture range from 1915 to the late 1960s. Most are in perfect working order. And, best of all, they stop me from procrastinating.
Because typewriters are designed to write. Every lever, gear and spring is arranged in precise interdependent mechanical ingenuity to achieve this one aim. There is literally nothing else to do on them. You find yourself drawn to typing, because the thing’s there, tangible, right in front of you. And then you find yourself, minutes later, still typing, in a blissful stupor of creativity.
They’re beautiful, too, and there’s an alluring sense of history about them. They smell of age, like old books. They’ve been around longer than I have. They’ll be here after I’m not. I have no idea who owned them, or what was typed on them; that mystery gives them character, and I like knowing that I’m part of that legacy, as they’ll hopefully be part of mine. I could pass them on to my future children (who will probably end up trading them for clean water in the unforgiving apocalyptic desert wastelands which we’ll all soon inhabit); something you just can’t say about a laptop.
No internet. No distractions. No privacy concerns. No battery to die on you. Just crisp white paper and the rhythmic thud of typebars against platen, punctuated by the cheerful ding of the line bell and the carriage return’s rasp.
And they’re so tactile. Words and pages on a screen are pixels; until they’re printed, they don’t physically exist. But on a typewriter, you see the words being stamped into the fibres of the paper, right in front of you. You see a pile of pages grow: wonderful, irrefutable evidence that you’re creating something.
Typewriters also led me to another procrastination revelation. I used to edit as I wrote, which was another way of putting things off, dropping out of ‘creating’ mode and into ‘editing’ mode to fix errors. If I came to a section that I knew would be hard to write, I’d avoid it by re-reading everything I’d written so far. But on a typewriter, you can’t do that; you can only move forward, and it’s incredibly liberating. You’re forced to do what’s sometimes called the ‘vomit draft’ (Hemingway had a ruder term for it, as you’d expect): get the idea out, in all its messy, ugly glory, and worry about making it shine later. So now, if I make a mistake, I don’t step out of the story to address it; I X over it, and carry on.
When I’d finished writing the play, I wondered if the novelty would soon wear off, but it hasn’t yet. I still use typewriters for all my first drafts, from short stories to a 188,000-word novel during NaNoWriMo.
I’m not saying they’re perfect. They’re noisy, heavy, antiquated things (and please don’t use them in coffee shops; we typewriter lovers get enough stick as it is). Buying them is tricky; you have to find one that’s right for you, although on the plus side you can probably find the same model your favourite old-school authors used. Changing ribbons is a pain and you’ll get ink on your fingers (although there’s a sort of joyous freedom in this, too). Typewriters can be hard to fix, although there are, incredibly, still people out there who will repair them. And getting your typewritten pages on to a computer to edit can be awkward. You can retype them, editing as you go, or take the lazy option, which is my preference: scan them in and use OCR (optical character recognition) to turn words into editable text. Either way, it’s not simple.
But, for all that, typewriters are marvels. That they still work 50-100 years after rolling off the assembly line is a testament to their quality. And they’ve experienced something of a resurrection in recent years: in The Typewriter Revolution, Richard Polt explores the many creative ways typewriters are being used in the 21st century. Polt also co-edits the Cold Hard Type anthologies of typewritten short stories (shameless plug: I have a short story in Backspaces, the latest collection, published by Loose Dog Press). There’s even a thriving online community, ‘The Typosphere’, where typewriter devotees discuss repairing, restoring, using and modifying machines.
Still, if you want to write distraction-free but don’t want an actual typewriter, there are digital equivalents. The AlphaSmart Neo2, a discontinued word-processor originally designed for schools in the 2000s, can be bought secondhand fairly cheaply, and you can transfer drafts to a computer using a USB cable. Three AA batteries give around 700 hours (not a typo) of use. Or, if you’ve got more cash to splurge, a US company called Freewrite has two products, both of which have full-size keyboards and e-ink screens and save your work to the cloud as you write. None of these have any other features, really – they’re out-and-out writing tools.
But typewriters are my jam, and I can honestly say I haven’t procrastinated once since I started using them.
I understood how far I’d come one evening during NaNoWriMo 2020. It was late and I was typing my novel on a 66-year-old typewriter, with just a candle and a lamp illuminating the page, a steaming mug of tea and a reassuringly fat stack of completed pages on the desk beside me, watching November raindrops run down the window. It was romantic, writerly, almost idyllic – all I needed was a garret. Then, with a start, I realised I hadn’t thought about emails or retweets or Funniest Memes compilation videos for over four hours.
By writing on a typewriter, I’d procrastinated procrastination. If that’s not a win, I don’t know what is!
Matt Wixey is a writer from Redbridge. He started writing (again) in 2018, and has since had various short plays produced at London fringe theatres and online. In 2020, he won the Hammond House International Literary Competition in both the short story and screenwriting categories, and was longlisted for Channel 4’s 4Screenwriting scheme. He is a previous Pen to Print Short Story Contest winner and a member of the London Library Emerging Writers Programme. Matt enjoys writing horror, sci-fi and dark comedy, particularly about the interplay between science, technology and culture. When not writing, Matt works in cybersecurity, studies for a part-time PhD, and collects typewriters.
I'm a procrastinator. It's a miracle you're reading this at all, really.