A Typewriter in Every Classroom?

It is Writer’s Week here in New Hampshire, and The New Hampshire Writer’s Project has organized a week-long series of events around the state to help aspiring writers on their journey to the page and beyond. On Tuesday, I presented my answer to that night’s question: What is the one thing you need to know to finish a first draft?

My answer: curiosity.

There were four other speakers: Steve Carter, Richard Adams Carey, Rob Greene and Jim Kelly. They all were the embodiment of warmth, generosity and humor. In the end, we all said the same thing– with our own flavor.

But I want to tell you about Rob Greene because he is doing something extraordinary.

He began his presentation by placing a manual typewriter on the lectern. CTcuJDyWIAEMa1s

Then he pecked away on the keys, saying, “It was a dark and stormy night…” He slapped the return lever to bring the carriage back and continued, “A shot rang out…,” and we all laughed. It was so cliche, so old-school.

His answer to the question of the night: everyone needs a manual typewriter. And he  cataloged its advantages: no internet connection/distraction; too much difficulty changing things, so it is easier to just keep going and not worry over mistakes; a concrete record of progress: that growing pile of pages; accountability: if he tells his wife that he is working on his novel, she can tell by the sound whether he is, in fact, working.

His was a wonderful example of a writer setting himself up for success.

But he said something else that struck me. He is also a high school teacher, and he owns 45 manual typewriters– he scavenges and repairs them– and he brings them into his classroom. He described a class in which the students were all writing– typing. And he likened it to music. Can’t you just imagine it?

And he mentioned that the manual typewriter was a real help for his students who have ADHD: the tactile experience enables them– some, for the first time– to focus more on their writing.

It takes energy to press those keys– to keep pressing them. There is a satisfying “clack” each time. I know because my father is a writer, and when I was little, I could hear him typing out his his manuscripts and articles, really hitting those keys hard to get through two sheets of onion skin paper with a piece of carbon paper in between. (He has since moved on to using a laptop. I don’t know if he still uses only his two forefingers to type).

Rob’s method is a revolution: an intermediate step– and perhaps a very crucial one– between writing by hand and using a computer.

Writing is an act of will as well as an act of thought and imagination. And our will develops first, when we are children, through our bodies, through our physical experience of the world. A healthy will is essential because it is through our will that we manifest our thoughts and feelings into deeds.

I have written on Krista Tippett’s On Being Blog about how we can organize our home life to support the healthy development of will in our children by including them in real work and real play. We nourish the will by doing. Not by talking, not by explaining. Not by thinking. By doing things that our children can imitate. By doing things that are worthy of imitation.

In schools these days, the use of computers is creeping (and I use the word with its malevolent connotation intentionally) into lower and lower grades. Some schools are not  teaching cursive writing anymore in lieu of using a computer. This is a problem. Handwriting is an act of will– it is coordination between the head and the hand. The importance and benefits of the very physicality of the act is not to be overlooked. The quick jump to computers takes out the physical aspect so quickly. Too quickly.

By using manual typewriters in his classes, Rob is setting up his students for success. He has found a way to engage their will in a way that is both physical and mental, practical and creative. This is genius.

 

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Safekeeping

I am slung back in an armchair in the living room, reading a memoir of sorts: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.  I laugh at one passage and turn the page and then am slammed—she does this, with the simplest of details—and glance into the study to see if my son and husband notice that I am crying.  They don’t.

Thomas is going to high school part-time this year.  He wanted to get out of the house, which makes sense to us.  We’d like to get out of it, too.  It is dark.  The whole state is dark.   But that is another story.

But my son wanted to keep doing math with his dad.  For the last few years, they have been working together through courses from “The Art of Problem-solving,” courses which are heinously and deliciously challenging.  They sit together at my husband’s desk in the study—I can see them from my chair—bent over their papers, murmuring to each other, scratching their chins, working to figure out the starred problems, which are designed to be nearly impossible.  They love this.  But every once in a while they both sit back after a particularly long wrestling match and sigh with frustration and chagrin.  It is often a simple matter of computation that gets them off track.  They can do the hard stuff.  It is that elementary multiplication that bites them on the butt.

Today, while I am sneaking in my tears, they do this again—sit back laughing and shaking their heads.

“The usual stumbling block?” I ask, smiling down the hall at them.

“Yeah, 8 times 7,” says Thomas.  They are grinning cheesey grins at me.  They are proud of themselves, thinking that these blind spots confirm their genius.

“Ooh.  That’s a rough one,” I say sarcastically. I have a role to play in this, too.

“Oh yeah… what is it?” says Thomas.

“56,” I say.

“Just checking,” says Ray.  And then he whispers loudly to Thomas, “write that down.”

He looks up at me, bouncing his eyebrows, enjoying his small coup. “There’s more than one way to get to the answer.”

Then they set their elbows on the desk and rest their chins in their hands, mirror images, and start on the next problem, their pleasure in themselves so absolute that it sheets off of them and sloshes up against the walls.

I hold my book up again, but instead of reading, I look past the pages at them and let those waves wash over me.