In Praise of Tinkering
Hi There Friend,
Welcome to Spirit: Notes for the Creative Contemplative, where I discuss the role of literature, creativity, and mindfulness in culture through personal essays.
I’m so glad you’re reading, and if you landed here from the wilds of the internet, please subscribe.
Thanks for reading,
Yes, I’d like future Spirit articles delivered to my inbox.
On my dining room table, there’s a 1975 Olympia Traveller manual typewriter I’ve gutted down to its chassis. It sits next to a jar of mineral spirits, a jumbo box of Q-tips, and a toolbox full of tiny jeweler’s pliers and screwdrivers. I am tinkering. I have just the smallest inkling of how I might restore and repair this beat up typewriter, but outfitting myself with a little YouTube-gleaned knowledge and a willingness to try, I’m up for the adventure of it.
I found this typewriter on Facebook Marketplace. Though the Traveller is prized for its metal-body (when most manufacturers by then had switched to flimsier, cheaper plastic), many consider this Yugoslavian-made machine the Yugo of typewriters. This one had significant rust on its body, a broken shift key, jammed margin tabulators, and every key was frozen. It looked like something heavy was dropped on the keyboard: the S, Z, X, and C keys are badly bent. I offered the seller $10, about 10% of her asking price, and realizing this was a lemon, she accepted.
My first task: get those keys unstuck. Meticulously cleaning each type-slug’s pivot point with rubbing alcohol to dissolve grime and then mineral spirits to lubricate them was enough to get every key functioning again. Watching each cotton swab grow black with decades of filth as I nudged it between each typebar was oddly soothing and relaxing. An hour later, I had keys that moved again.
After a thorough investigation of the shift key mechanism, I realized that the lever that triggered the uppercase letters had been bent. I simply used my fingers to bend it back into the correct position, and EUREKA, I could typographically SHOUT!
These victories make typewriter rehabilitation exciting and addictive, but taking a complex machine apart fulfills another function too.
“With the rise of technology and the conversion of our workforce from makers to data enterers, we use our hands less for meaningful activities,” explains Carrie Barron in The Creativity Cure: how to build happiness with your own two hands.
“This has thrown us out of alignment with our nature, our anatomical intent. Making and using tools defined the rise of humankind and its evolving, enlarging brain…Invention of these implements was an important means of self-expression, creative engagement, and fulfillment. We have arrived at a point in human society where manufacturing by hand is almost unnecessary from a practical point of view but necessary from a psychological perspective. Conveniences deprive us of processes that elevate mood and foster internal well-being.”
By taking apart a typewriter, I’ve stumbled on a new hobby that makes me happy. I still don’t know how to fix the bent keys, and occasionally the machine’s escapement gear jams, and I may never get it fully functioning. Maybe the Traveller will eventually become a parts machine, cannibalized to fix other machines in my collection. I’m not worried about the end result because I’m having too much fun figuring everything out along the way. That’s what tinkering is all about.
It helps that the Traveller is the sixth typer in my new collection. I stumbled into typewriter collecting almost by accident back in April. When a friend gifted me art supplies, he also gave me two old typewriters. When I first got them, I typed a bit on their desiccated old ribbons. They felt clunky, slow, and strange compared to my computer keyboard. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them, until I decided to host a Typewriter Rodeo with Writers’ Studio.
Poet friends typed custom poems about crowd-sourced themes, spontaneously on-the-spot. We used a 1950s Smith Corona Sterling (gifted to me) and a 1960s Smith Corona Cosair Deluxe (another FB find). In the process of servicing these machines to use for the Typewriter Rodeo, I fell in love with them.
There is nothing practical or easy about antique typewriters, and that may be their allure. The typewriter slows me down and makes me more intentional about the words I use.
The typewriter teaches me patience. It’s a slow process not only of typing on them but keeping them in good working order. Very few people still know how to repair them, have the tools to repair them, or can source the parts to repair them. There isn’t a single typewriter repair person within a 150-mile radius of where I live. There is, however, a thriving online community of enthusiasts that share knowledge, PDFs of repair manuals, and advice. Diagnosing and fixing a typewriter can take a lot of internet searching as well as trial and error, which is part of the reward of the process.
The typewriter humbles me. There are no takebacks or erasing on these machines. No instant delete key. No spell check. When I make a mistake, I’m reminded the only thing to do is move onward. Keep going. Don’t be so precious about it.
The typewriter helps me balance my writing life. I spend a lot of time in front of computer screens at my day job and when I have time to write for myself, I don’t want to be on a computer anymore. Having a way to write without circadian rhythm disrupting monitor light late at night means I can write more frequently.
The typewriter is tactile and the tactile is FUN. I love the sound it makes. I love the feel. I love of how my fingertip’s force determines the darkness of the letter. I love the joyous bell DING when I reach the right margin, and the delightful ZIP the carriage return makes.
The typewriter—a new-to-me writing medium—changes my composition process and its product. Visual artists switch mediums, change methods of production, and experiment. Why should writers be confined to a Word Document? Composing on a typewriter creates a rhythm I rarely realized before. Typewriters are a type of percussion instrument, after all. And the words that come from them bear that beat.
I’m amazed by what a few 60-some-year-old machines have taught me about my creative process and my writing process. Typewriters are for tinkering, and tinkering leads to wonderful surprises.