Four years ago, after nine books, three plays, and a couple of screenplays, I switched to writing (primarily) on my vintage manual typewriter collection. Since then my productivity has tripled! Working by typewriter taught me an important lesson in what creating slowly can teach us. I bought my first vintage manual typewriter in November of 2016. It was a 1958 German-made Olympia SM3. The SM stands for Schreibmaschine Mittelgrob: German for “medium-sized typewriter."
Why would anyone write on a 60-plus-year-old typewriter when computers make writing so easy and quick? Well, that was the point. Computers were making my writing too easy, too quick. Too disconnected from me. This, along with massive changes in my personal and professional lives, caused me to stop and reassess.
Once that time of reflection was done, I went straight to my new friends, Jay and Paul Schweitzer, owners, proprietors, and craftsmen at the legendary Gramercy Typewriter Company. Typically generous, Jay let me try out several machines before I fell in love with the SM3. I took it home and began the frustrating process of relearning how to write on this new (old) machine. And I never looked back.
Since then, I’ve finished four books and three plays. I built a website (now folded into this one), and had a ton of other adventures — all related to my new life commitment of working slowly. So why am I writing this now? Because… My journey of learning what creating slowly can teach us was a game-changer. Something I feel I have to pass it on. If it helps my fellow creatives at all, well — that, to me, is time well spent.
Here’s what I learned from working on a vintage manual typewriter: Show up for work every day. Sit at your post. Wait. Listen. Wait some more.
A typewriter forces a writer to practice a virtue that’s gone out of style these days. That virtue, of course, is restraint. With a vintage manual typewriter, you don’t just type a bunch of words for the sake of typing words. You learn instead it’s okay to do nothing. If you don’t know what’s coming next — the next sentence, the next word, the next punctuation mark — so be it. Just wait.
Eventually, something will come. It always does. If you wait for it long enough, it will be the right thing because, in the waiting, you will not have done nothing. You will, in fact, have been active.
In the waiting, you will have mentally examined and rejected many possibilities. You will have learned to trust your instincts more — your guts. And you will have defeated impatience. You will have learned to respect both the blankness of the page — that infinite whiteness where anything whatsoever can happen — and you will have learned to humble yourself before the sheer magnificence of possibility. You will also have learned respect for the snap of the key and the fall of the hammer — the motion that stamps black ink onto white so dualities come together like yin and yang, the parts with which wholes are created. You will likewise have humbled yourself before that. And by getting out of the way, you will have allowed your work to be born.
Franz Kafka once wrote:
“You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
With all this in mind, my fellow Creatives, I urge you to consider: Modern society has forgotten the importance of waiting. Of listening. Of patience. We have forgotten how doing nothing is actually a very sophisticated form of accomplishing many somethings at once.
In “The Actor’s Art and Craft,” the first book I wrote with my friend and mentor, the late William Esper, we said:
“You should all turn off your cell phones. Shut down your computers. Click off your iPods and your televisions and everything you listen to that isn’t human. Modern society has surrounded us with these things and they’re killing us. We’re beginning to forget what it is simply to breathe and eat and laugh and watch and wonder and listen and experience one another. We’re forgetting how to be human beings with actual opinions and genuine feelings and originality. And if we can’t be human, how can we ever hope to be artists?”
Bill and I also wrote that a commitment to unplugging, going within, and creating slowly is “the battle that art must fight in the 21st century … we must defend our humanity in a society that values us less and less.”
Which is why, my friends, I urge you. Please: Step back. Sit down. Let go and listen. Don’t worry. Whatever you’re creating will come to you. It must. It has no choice. For it is the art, and you are the artist. It knows it belongs to you. Only you. wait. It’s trying to find you right now. Remember: our job is simple. When it arrives, simply welcome it home.