A version of this story appeared in Total Annarchy, my fortnightly newsletter that helps you be a better writer, storyteller, marketer. Get it in your inbox; you’ll love it.
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This is a story about AI Writing and typewriters.
Over the holiday break I lifted a curious grimy, gray case up off the cruddy floor of an even cruddier secondhand shop. It was heavy and bulky, big enough to house… what? A small motor? A human head?
I don’t know why I scared myself with the head thing. But once I thought of it, I couldn’t not think of it. So crouching on that gross floor, working the latches on the case (it wasn’t just grimy, but sticky too)… I felt a creepy dread.
(I also felt like Covid was crawling right off the floor and straight up my sleeves.)
Finally the latches swung open… no heads, thank god.
Instead though… THERE SHE WAS! A gorgeous turquoise blue Remington typewriter—gleaming bright even in the shop’s unkind fluorescent overheads.
It was a Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty, circa 1969-70, the Internet later told me.
On the case, marked in Sharpie, was the price: $19.99. It was right near the name of the original owner: “Thomas Murphy,” printed in blocky letters with a pen.
When I lugged the typewriter to the register (Thomas Murphy must’ve been jacked!) and heaved all of its 16 pounds (oof!) onto the counter, the shop attendant glanced at the $19.99 price. Then she rang up $10.
I pointed to the price on the case. “It’s half off,” she said, by way of explanation that explained nothing.
I got the Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty home. I cleaned her up. (I don’t know what the sticky stuff was on the case. I don’t think I want to know.) And, yes, she works perfectly!
I love the way the clack of each keystroke erupts as a small cheer under your fingertips: Y! (cheer!) E! (cheer!) S! (cheer!)
At the end of each line a small bell chimes—yeep! you wrote another line!
“CONGRATS!” the turquoise Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty says. “You go! You’re writing!”
It’s like having your own personal cheering squad, right there on the page. (Writers need cheering squads.)
Which brings me to AI Writing.
The promise of the “ease” of AI Writing is false—it’s a trap.
Sure, it’s fun to play around with ChatGPT, this infant iteration of an AI writing tool. It’s fun to learn how to best prompt it to get decent results.
But the turquoise blue Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty is a good reminder of three things:
1) Writing is a full-body contact sport. You need to participate fully. Your brain. Your hands. Your personality. Your voice. All of it.
We writers can’t passively sit back and let AI write *for us*. The way to use AI is as a gymnast using a spotter and a coach—a way to help you create with more confidence. Even fearlessly. Yet it’s your talent that drives AI. You are the gymnast!
2) The advent of AI makes one thing really clear to me: Your relationship with your audience matters more than ever. *Who* is wielding the tool is crucial.
You write faster first drafts, but you can’t shortcut relationships.
3) Your relationship with your audience starts with your relationship with yourself, as a writer. Do the work to become a better, more confident writer. Find tools that help your writing voice, your taste, your instincts to evolve.
Use those tools often. Play with them.
Maybe that’s a journal and a pen. A diary and a Sharpie. Or maybe you’re Thomas Murphy with a turquoise blue Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty.
It doesn’t matter what you choose: Just find a way to connect physically to the work. It’s the only way to strengthen your relationship with yourself.
The Rest of the Story
It wasn’t until I got the typewriter home and unpacked that sticky case that I noticed one more thing about it:
Thomas Murphy, it turns out, was a meticulous historian.
Stashed under the Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty was all of its original paperwork, including a factory test she got before she left the factory floor in Norwalk, Connecticut, 53 years ago. The test was certified by “R.A. Pardon, Quality Assurance Manager.”
I immediately pictured R.A. Pardon as a lab-coated technician with a clipboard, putting her through her paces before she’d be released into the working world. At Remington headquarters in 1970… was there Typewriter Bootcamp?
“THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG!” R.A. Pardon barks at her. “NOW KNEES UP! AND DOUBLE-TIME!”
Thomas Murphy kept that certificate of achievement she earned. And the instructional manual, too.
But why would he, I wondered…?
Because he thought someone else (the next owner?) might want the documentation that she graduated top of her class?
Because she had a future that would go beyond Thomas Murphy? Because she would go on without him?
Is that why he—or someone—packaged her up with all her paperwork and sent to her off to her next assignment?
Yes. That’s why.
The Sperry Rand Remington Ten Forty would outlast Thomas Murphy. Or at least his need for her.
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You might read this as a story of the stoicism and staying power of a machine made of metal and gears and no electrical components, chips, or fussy CPUs.
(Can you imagine a MacBook languishing on a cruddy floor for years still able to perform right out of its case? Are you kidding? That MacBook would need a meticulous cleanup and gentle pampering and coaxing and a therapist for the emotional trauma of that cruddy floor… and even then it would be dicey.)
Or you might read this as a story of the durability of typewriters. The nostalgia for a time when a machine didn’t need anything more than an annual tune-up and a de-sticky-fying to work. And—if you’re old enough—the nostalgia of learning how to type.
But no. That’s not it.
Instead, this story is about the staying power of something more lasting than typewriters or gears or any machine.
Instead, this story is about the invincible, indestructible power of words themselves. And the need for writers who care.
We make all the difference.