Some days of importance are tragic, others historic. The profound ones changed how we live.
For hundreds of thousands of years, man’s life was dictated by two key factors: the rise and fall of the sun, and his own circadian rhythms. That ended on 4 September 1882 when Thomas Edison threw the switch on the first electrical power distribution system. It changed everything – from our waking and working hours, to our at-home entertainment, to the general organization of the home.
Another one: on 18 October 1952, music became portable with the launch of the first transistor radio – the Regency TR-1. We now were controlling our music, taking it with us wherever we wanted.
I believe human creativity changed – for better, for worse – on an unnamed day in April 1973 when IBM unveiled its Correcting Selectric II typewriter. An improvement from the original IBM Selectric launched in the early 1960s, this advanced machine had a new and ground-breaking key, one which allowed the typist to back space and then overstrike the previous character, thereby erasing it.
This is a milestone?
The way I see it, we now could own a machine which allowed two opposite forces to work simultaneously. You could interrupt your creativity and imagination with the negative act of censure and editing. Can that be good for the brain? It seems to me it’d be like a car trying to go forward and backward at the same time.
But that’s not the end of it. It’s more than just one activity destroying another. The residual act of editing is also an act of distraction. As distractions increase, our ability to focus on one thing, to do it well, was soon to be gone forever.
This concept is incomprehensible to anyone who grew up without a keyboard within easy reach. Anyone who started school by at least 1970 had had to learn to write – more so, to compose their thoughts – by hand. Before QWERTY, we had to think of our thoughts in our head, compose them before they came out to be stamped on the page. Because we couldn’t easily change our mind, we gave a bit more consideration to how we expressed our ideas and transferred them from head to paper. In other words, we had to think more.
But by April 1973, you could adjust a word, a phrase, a clause after you thought about it. Edit out sentences. Remove a whole paragraph. The need to edit became as equally available – if not addictive? – as the need to create. Two steps forward, one step back. Or would that be one step forward, and two steps back?
I am constantly amazed at how many things there are in life which prohibit and dampen our creativity. I understand the outside influences – distractions and politics at work, society and peer pressures, traditional mores and negative attitudes. I’m less understanding of the ones which we impose upon ourselves. Self-doubt is poison, and ironically it’s a drug we make ourselves, and its arguably the most dangerous of all toxins. Why we allow things – simple things, like a back space key – to intrude on our ability to create is wrong. Why we allow ourselves to self-destruct with doubt and other negative thoughts is unacceptable because it never lets us achieve our full self. It reminds me of the quote by Lao Tzu, from Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching: “Those who overcome themselves are strong.”
As an experiment, I tried to go back to those days. I found an old Remington typewriter in Sydney (see photo) at a garage sale for $10. Steely industrial blue with firm keys printed with white Arial letters. The first few hours were heady. The convincing whirl of the cylinder as I rolled in a spotless white page. The click-clack of the hammers as they struck the paper with my ideas. The enormously satisfying swing to throw the carriage back to the beginning and start a new line.
The romance ended the moment I typed something I didn’t like. I stopped, I read the entire sentence and didn’t like what I’d wrote. I tried to keep going, but again and again, I was editing my thoughts before I’d even finished the next sentence.
As I struggled to get to the end of the second paragraph, I realized the last sentence would be preferable to the first sentence. I whisked out the paper, made some jotting notes in red pen, and scrolled in a new paper. Hold on, I needed more coffee. I came back to my desk (after I stopped to add something to the grocery list), and realized I hadn’t called back a clients. Then I found myself typing and talking on the phone at the same time. I started taking notes from my conference call in the middle of my writing.
A few days later, the typewriter went back in its box. I hugged my wireless keyboard as a prodigal son.
I found this marvelous quote from author Will Self, in an interview with The Guardian in 2008. “Writing on a manual typewriter makes you slower in a good way, I think. You don’t revise as much, you just think more, because you know you’re going to have to retype the entire (expletive) thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.”
The back-spacer key isn’t going away anytime soon, so no need to ditch the smartphone and dig the Smith-Corona out of the bottom of the hall closet. A better alternative may be to learn how to control both the back-space key on our keyboards and the back-space key in our mind.
Perhaps to be more creative, all we need to do is slow down, focus and think. We need to allow our thoughts to come out, to be expressed. Do we really need to instantly judge our thoughts the moment they’re born? It’s like being an egg farmer. They don’t grade the eggs the moment they’re hatched. You only have context when you step back away from the whole.
I’m not a big fan of bashing modern technologies, because many of them have terrific value. But rather than damn these improvements, perhaps we simply need to be an egg farmer and put them into context. There is a time for efficiency and accomplishment, just as there is a time for creativity and thoughtfulness
Wouldn’t it be the most pleasurable holiday to simply turn off the distractions? Ah, to let our mind wander and think. To focus on just one thing. “Do one thing well and the world will beat a path to your door,” said Emerson.
Imagine. What could you do if you gave up your back-space key?