“I write longhand” and other ways going retro helps you focus

Sunday Life: This week I work a little “retro”…and it worked!

via Gala Darling

A week or so ago “#RIPTypewriters” was trending. Which, for those not of The Twitterverse, means a stack of people were commenting on the death of the typewriter following news the last manufacturer in the world had closed shop. I entered the nostalgic Twitter fray to reminisce about work life pre-Ctrl Alt Delete:

Remember Liquid Paper? Remember doing actual research in a library? The metho smell of the stat machine?

The commentary, as with all things particular to Boomers and Gen Xers, was tinged saturated with a certain “see how hard we had it back then?” message to young folk. But there was also a distinct longing to it. Not for the usual “simpler times” (because they weren’t; navigating the Dewey system to check what year Tupperware was invented was not an elegant process). But for…well, this week I tried to capture what it was. And replicate it.

Turns out there’s a community of hipster typewriter fetishists out there. In March the New York Times ran a feature on Brooklyn 20-somethings who hunt down vintage Remingtons at flea markets. “Type-ins” are being held around the world (cool typers hang out in pubs and…hit the keys) and there’s an emerging “typosphere” (a blog scene for typewriter nuts). One Gen Y fan summed the appeal thus: “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete”. Another: “On a typewriter, you have to think”, by which she meant, because you have to think ahead (so as to avoid dousing your page in Liquid Paper), it dictates a considered and reflective approach to your work. As opposed to the modern “ready, fire, aim” approach, which we seem to be tiring of (witness Lindsay Tanner’s spray at contemporary politics for being knee-jerkish and ill-considered in his book Sideshow).

Funnily enough, at the Logies the other night I joined Charlie Pickering (the Gen X-er on Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation) in arguing with Josh Thomas (the Gen Y-er) on this very subject. In the “olden days” we had to research and engage with a subject before we opined on it. “That’s what knowledge is,” we told him. Josh adjusted his fringe and said he gets his knowledge as he needs it. He whipped out his phone and hit the Google icon. But that’s not knowledge we said with earnest Gen X exasperation. It’s not rich, original, engaged and fired-up; it’s derived and spurted.

via The Brag
via The Brag

Josh walked off, happy to let us think we’d won.

This is what I think we’re longing:

to get more engaged with what we spurt out and to have some anchored permanence to what we produce.

We all work on computers and type faster than we can reflect, which in turn creates a harried, unfinished flavour to what we do. And how we live.

But does going retro make things better?

Confession: I personally hand-write this column, which is Neanderthal-ically retro. I “draw” my arguments with scribbles and arrows and develop my ideas away from others’ online opinions. Then I turn on my computer. Stephen King wrote Dreamcatcher longhand. “It makes you think about each word as you write it,” he told CBS News. “You see more ahead because you can’t go as fast.”

I agree. Working away from a computer helps me to get a birds’-eye view and structure my thoughts properly. Carefully. Some direction in a directionless world!

On the flipside, the “ready, fire, then work out your direction as you go” approach of computers, does have merit. Diving into your work, looking up facts as you need them, layering bits you like, shuffling the order around – it’s in keeping with how life flows now. Life is so complex and shifts constantly; a stable, bird’s-eye view is often redundant.

Which brings me to index cards. It would appear these daggy secretary staples are also having a nostalgic revival. A wad of them held together with a bulldog clip have been termed “hipster PDAs” and a bunch of writers and CEOs passionately espouse them. Edward de Bono told me a while back he uses them to churn out his 80-plus books.

I tried them this week. The deal is you record your thoughts as they occur (in this ever-shifting world). A card for each idea. You flesh out your original thoughts, adding facts as you go. Then you lay them out and move them around, discarding any that don’t fit, thus creating  a coherent structure. Then type up the results.


I used it for my book. I wrote out every idea, anecdote etc on a card and then lay them out using the tongue and groove boarding on my shed.

They kind of bridge both worlds and satisfy the longing for more tangible engagement with our thinking. And are a lot more portable than a Remington.

PS Since writing the post I’ve come across so many people who do old-school stuff to get down into their inspired spot. I’ve just finished reading Alex Miller’s Lovesong. The main character, a writer, writes longhand. A computer screen is a wall between him and his gaze out the window.

Does retro work for you? What do you miss about the old stat copier days?

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