In episode five of StoryTech, Jeff speaks to long-time friend and best-selling author, John Colapinto, whose works include the nonfiction book, How Nature Made Him, and novel, Undone. But as he explains to Jeff in this episode, John believes he couldn’t have written either of these successful titles without abandoning his manual typewriter and switching to a computer.
John also shares that starting his career hammering out magazine articles on the typewriter helped shape his writing for better and worse. And believes that other great writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac were also shaped by the typewriter - making this an important technology that many modern writers would naturally overlook.
You can listen to episode five of StoryTech free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music right now. Or if you’re more of a reader, just scroll down for the full episode transcript and highlights from this week’s episode.
John Colapinto is author of five books - most recent, a nonfiction book called This Is The Voice, which was published in 2021. He has also had a prolific career as a magazine writer, including long runs as contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a staff writer at The New Yorker.
John has also lived through the transition from bashing out stories on a manual typewriter to easily crafting narratives on personal computers. He shares with Jeff how this technology leap has changed the way he wrote and what he wrote. And even though writing by typewriter could be a grueling process, John believes it has had an undeniable imprint not only on his writing, but also the literature of the 20th century.
This 26 minute podcast episode was transcribed in 8 minutes by Trint’s super-powered AI. View the full transcript below or jump ahead to notable points from Jeff’s interview with John Colapinto.
[00:00:00] Jeff (V/O): This is StoryTech. I'm Jeff Kofman.
[00:00:05] John: I did this last year for my book tour endlessly.
[00:00:08] Jeff: Really?
[00:00:09] John: I spent like three months in this fucking closet. But anyway, it's fun. Well, you know, it was during COVID, so every single live event was canceled. It was brutal.
[00:00:20] Jeff (V/O): That's John Colapinto carving out a space in the bedroom closet of his New York apartment so he could record this podcast.
[00:00:28] John: And this is all fine. I'm just taking a couple of stacks of jeans out. I think we should leave this in the podcast. It could be kind of interesting?
[00:00:36] Jeff: I think we should actually too. We should be recording this.
[00:00:39] John: Yeah, I mean, this is technology changing storytelling.
[00:00:46] Jeff (V/O): John is one of my oldest friends. We went to high school and university together in Canada. He's also a bestselling author. He achieved that with his first book back in 2000 - As Nature Made Him. Since then, he's released two more nonfiction books and two novels. All of them are really terrific reads, and that is not the rose-colored glasses of friendship tinting my view.
[00:01:13] Jeff (V/O): I have a confession, and John's never heard this. When I read John's books and soak up the mastery of his word craft, I think to myself, I will never be worthy of writing a book. John knows how to write beautifully. He's also had a prolific career as a magazine writer, including long runs as contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a staff writer at The New Yorker. When he started writing back in the 1980s, I used to watch him hammer out stories on a manual typewriter. Eventually, he relented. Living through the transition to personal computers, and they changed the way he wrote and what he wrote.
[00:01:53] Jeff (V/O): We've been friends for decades, but I've never had a chance to ask him about all that. And so that's why I wanted to bring him on today. You'll hear him make the case that even though writing by typewriter could be a grueling process, it had an undeniable imprint not only on his writing, but also the literature of the 20th century.
[00:02:16] Jeff (V/O): From Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in cooperation with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. This is StoryTech.
[00:02:34] Jeff (V/O): This is a personal journey I want to share with you. I spent the first 30 years of my career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, and the last eight years as founder and CEO of Trint - a tech company focused on transcription and streamlining the workflow of storytelling. We have seen so much technological change come at us so fast. The idea behind this podcast is to explore how those changes have shaped what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. Today, from the keys of a typewriter to the keys of a computer. How Laptops Changed Literature.
[00:03:24] Jeff: I want to go back to your early days. Do you remember the very first machine you wrote on?
[00:03:32] John: I do, yes. I mean, discounting the technology of pen and paper, I used my dad's IBM Selectric electric typewriter when I wanted to make a fair draft of something. He had a nice typewriter, but that was not my main writing tool, really. Because when I went off to college, my dad bought me not an IBM Selectric, but in typical fashion he bought me like a cheap manual typewriter because I was just a kid. You know, I could eventually graduate to the better technology. So, you know, I really did my sort of technological writing on a typewriter, the old manual typewriter.
[00:04:08] Jeff: So your dad had an IBM Selectric? I thought that was the bee's knees of typewriters when I first saw them. I'm guessing that a lot of people listening to us now would have no idea what an IBM Selectric was and why a kid like me would have thought in the 1980s that it was so cool. How do you describe that thing?
[00:04:27] John: Well it was fascinating because it didn't have what we think of with most typewriters, which is these single arms that have a letter on that sweep up and hit the ribbon, which then transfers the ink to the page. Instead, they had this ball, this amazing ball that spun at this incredible speed. On the face of this ball were all the different characters, letters, punctuation and so on. I mean, it was also of course electric, meaning that when you depressed a key, you were not doing like a manual act of physical punching of a letter onto the page, as you do with a manual typewriter - i.e. where it's a lever system and so on in gears. Instead, you know, it transfers an electrical impulse to the ball and the ball swings up and hits the page at incredible speed. And you could just type it in amaze, like much, much faster speed. And that was really the revelation there.
[00:05:25] Jeff: So you really started on a manual typewriter at university?
[00:05:29] John: I did exactly. Like I was sort of allowed to use the Selectric in, you know, selected moments. I remember I submitted a short story to a competition and I typed it on that typewriter because, you know, it was a special submission. But yes, I went off to college with a decent portable typewriter. And this is sort of relevant, I think, to my experience of really what writing was. And what I found kind of extra onerous about it was that it was a physically demanding process, literally, to type on a manual typewriter. You had to punch those keys rather hard. You know, you cranked it back to the beginning of the line with this arm that was on the side of the cylinder. You ended up with copy that didn't look particularly good. Your ribbon was forever getting faded because you wouldn't change it properly. You never hit the keys with the precise power each time you struck them, so some letters would be dark, some would be lighter. You made lots of typos. You tried to use Wite-Out. You would get impatient and try to type over the Wite-Out before it had dried and got this amazing splotchy thing. You know, that was a process that was very, very unpleasant. It was sort of a layer of the process that I dreaded and was never satisfied with once it was finished.
[00:06:43] Jeff: So walk me through the writing process in those early days. Talk to me about sort of what the tools were and what the process was. When you had, say, an English essay or you were writing a short story. How does it begin? What are you using?
[00:06:55] John: Yeah, I always used pen and paper to start. Some writers, you know, went straight into a typewriter. I always felt there was a disconnect between what was going on in my mind and what I wanted to see occur on the page. There was something about the technology of a pen and paper that connects you or connected me more readily to my brain centers that were generating the stories and words. And it's almost like it was a rhythmic thing. You know, you're doing something with your body in writing those letters and leaning into the page. And, you know, I felt like a kind of direct connection through my arm and a hand. I mean, that's a little fanciful, but that's kind of the way it felt. That's certainly how I would find inspiration. And the words would kind of pour out of me, which you want them to do in a first draft.
[00:07:43] John: And then eventually, I guess I would get it to a place where I would think, okay, I need to see this in the clean, cold, clinical, fixed looking version of a typescript because that is a very helpful thing to see it in a totally different format. So then I would laboriously input the thing with my terrible hunt and peck typing, my constant errors, usually my typewriter ribbon bad, often having to pull the piece of paper out of the out of the machine and just crumple it up and start again because I had just made so many errors. It was dreadful.
[00:08:23] John: And I actually despaired, quite honestly, of ever writing something as long as a novel because I knew that that process involved endless redrafting of what you think are final drafts on your typewriter. So I would read a biography of James Joyce and I would go, "Ah, yes, well, even though he was a penniless guy, he would get his typescript done by a professional typist", because there was no way he was going to sit down there and hunt and peck it. And, you know, you find out in reading that, you know, Nabokov married a woman who could touch type and she typed all his drafts. In other words, all of my favorite writers avoided this stage that we all found so bloody awful and painful. But I would think, okay, that's how Ulysses ever got created, because he didn't have to type it. Likewise, Lolita.
[00:09:13] Jeff: So he wrote them out by hand? He wrote them out on pen and paper?
[00:09:17] John: Fascinatingly, to anyone that love Nabokov - pencil and index cards. He was obsessive about this index cards idea. And he did that because then he could easily shuffle the index cards and change their order. This actually goes to something about the typewriting process that I didn't mention and the writing process generally, which is that it always involves writing what you think is the correct draft and then realizing, "Oh no, that paragraph on page four I actually wanted on page one".
[00:09:47] John: So just to sort of compound my description of the horrors of typewriting, this would mean literally physically cutting my drafts with a pair of scissors, getting out the tape, cutting that first page up, inserting this, taping it down, realizing later I actually want it on page three, moving it or part of it. You would end up with these drafts that were so ugly covered in tape. Actually Marcel Proust's, Remembrance of Things Past, was notorious. They have in museums these incredible monstrous pages that he would create with extra pages taped on the side. Just insanity. I quite literally would think I will never write a novel because it's unimaginable what kind of monster of drafting and redrafting and cutting and pasting I would create.
[00:10:35] Jeff: I mean, I'm slightly sympathetic, but, you know, Ernest Hemingway managed to do it. He dragged that typewriter around the world and he tapped out some of the best novels in the English language. And he didn't have anything more than that.
[00:10:48] John: Correct. One of the interesting things about that, though, is precisely that he was trained as a newspaper reporter. So he was trained for a kind of terseness, a rapid organization of ideas, and a style that was, to put it mildly, not verbose. I mean, his stock and trade, he's famous for those crisp, relatively short sentences, not highly adjectival and so on. And I think it came out of typewriting in a sense. I think it came out of a loathing, which I'm sure he also had for that process of typing. So if you look at those early short stories, they're very, very short stories like The Killers or A Clean Well-Lighted Place, are notable for their terseness and physical shortness. And my theory always being that boy, they smell very much of the typewriter in a good way, because he decided that it's so laborious to write on a typewriter that he did most of it mentally.
[00:11:45] Jeff: So you think that your theory about Ernest Hemingway is he avoided adjectives because then he wouldn't have to take the word?
[00:11:51] John: In a sense, yes. Crazy, right? I mean, just picture him traveling around. You know, he doesn't want to be carrying endless reams of paper. He's in war zones. He's in places where it's dangerous. You know, he's not sitting there cogitating forever, like Marcel Proust, who famously wrote the longest, most adjectival sentences in the history of all literature. And yeah, I actually do very much feel that there is the manual typewriter almost more than any other writer I could name in Ernest's writing. It's just there in his writing and I'm not kidding. But all kidding aside about how horrible it is to work on typewriters, they actually can improve writing for that very reason that you will do a little bit more of the work ahead of time in your head. In other words, you'll know a little bit more what you're trying to say, which is kind of the game of writing, especially if you believe brevity is the soul of wit. If you believe Strunk and White that you should omit needless words, you're really only going to get there if you've done a huge amount of the process in your head.
[00:12:57] Jeff: Yeah, it is true. There's a kind of luxury of chaos in today's world, isn't there, when you're writing.
[00:13:03] John: 100%, almost to a frightening degree.
[00:13:06] Jeff: I read that Jack Kerouac wrote the manuscript for On the Road on a long scroll so that he didn't actually have to stop his typing and change the paper.
[00:13:14] John: I love that.
[00:13:15] Jeff: Do you think it actually that the nature of having to getting to the bottom of a page, pulling the page out, putting a piece of paper in. Lining it up and then starting again in the middle of a sentence. Do you think that actually changed the way stories were told, too?
[00:13:28] John: Yes, I suppose they did. Yes, because the act of artistic creation is so fragile, is so contingent on environmental stimulus and change that, yeah, even something as brief as that breaking of the thought line that could bring you into a sense of self-consciousness about what you've been writing. And you don't want to be self-conscious if you can help it. And I think that the scroll effect that he did is totally fascinating because I think he did want to break what he had been experiencing in earlier writing, which was a kind of clenched, self-conscious thing. And he was writing a book, after all, called On the Road. Now, what is a road? It's an endless ribbon of asphalt that just goes across the country. And I think he thought that riding that endless scroll of paper was going to metaphorically reinforce, even physically reinforce what it is he's trying to say on the page, which is that life is a gamble, it's a crapshoot. It's not a safe thing. Get in the car. Don't put on your seatbelt and go, you know, and just try to stay on the road and see what happens to you, because that is a risky way to write, to tell yourself there's no stopping. You know, I'm just going to pour the words out.
[00:14:45] Advert: StoryTech is sponsored by Trint. The automated transcription and content creation tool made by storytellers for storytellers. Trint can help turn audio and video files into articles, podcasts and videos faster and easier than ever before. A discount code StoryTech25 is available on annual plans at Trint.com.
[00:15:12] Jeff: So when was the last time you wrote on a typewriter? Do you remember?
[00:15:16] John: Yeah, I believe that I wrote the story that broke me in New York City was actually two stories. And they were they were significant because one of them was a massive feature in Vanity Fair, that didn't happen to people all the time that you come to New York as an unknown hayseed and you cold call editors and then land a really major story that got me an agent and everything else. And Tina Brown wrote her editor's letter about me, and it was about a chess prodigy that had been abused by his father. But simultaneously, I spun off a story to The New Yorker, a talk of the town about a chess hustler in Washington Square Park, who I met while researching that bigger Vanity Fair piece.
[00:15:56] John: Those were both written on my typewriter, interestingly, and I think they were the very last that I ever did, because I think that obviously marked an inflection point in my life and career. I wanted to somehow write for New York publications. I suddenly found myself doing so, and I thought, okay, John, you're in the big leagues, things are moving fast. How do you keep up? And I think I realized, you know, this Luddite nostalgia over my typewriter is insane. I mean, I learned I remember going to the Vanity Fair offices and seeing these floppy disks all over people's desks and thinking, John, you're going to have to get up to speed. Not to mention that those stories paid me some significant money. One of the Vanity Fair stories was optioned for the movies. So I suddenly had a little bit of money to buy a computer, too. So I believe those two were the last I ever did on my typewriter. Yeah.
[00:16:45] Jeff: Do you remember your first computer?
[00:16:47] John: I sure do, because I loved it so deeply. I came to New York, was staying on the floor of my good friends, and one of the guys taught at City University of New York. And he wasn't, didn't have enough money to buy his own, but he was able to bring a mac computer - the first Apple classic, I guess it was called.
[00:17:07] Jeff: The Macintosh?
[00:17:08] John: Yeah, Macintosh.
[00:17:09] Jeff: That big rectangular box.
[00:17:11] John: Well, yes, but this was the relatively more streamlined one, which kind of incorporated this central processing unit and screen into one putty colored box with a keyboard. So it sort of had an aura of portability about it of containedness. And the screen, to my amazement, when he brought this thing home. And of course this was Steve Jobs' incredible insight, having taken his calligraphy classes and understood the beauty of print on paper. The screen was a light neutral gray, like a piece of fairly good paper. And the type was black and it was in a pretty font. It was life changing. I mean, I just looked at that and I went that's that's everything. He showed me that you could write, justify if you wanted to, to make it look like a printed page in a book. He showed me copy and paste. I mean, I think I've told enough of my back story with typing for everybody listening to suddenly be jumping up from their desks yelling, "Oh, my God, Eureka! John found the solution". Because he did. I then dug into whatever megear savings I had and at the earliest opportunity bought myself one of these extraordinary machines. That would have been 86?
[00:18:28] Jeff: And did it transform the way you worked?
[00:18:30] John: Well, it did. I mean, well, for one thing, I've written two novels. Now, I mentioned that I would never write a novel. I have uncompleted novels on my hard disk, too, because now there was no barrier to pouring words down on the page in a free associative creative, unburdened, on frightened way. You know, I mentioned before that with typewriting, you know, there was kind of this calculus in your head, Oh, I threw that piece of paper out that cost me a penny in or am I going to buy a new typewriter ribbon or more Wite-Out. Pouring words onto a computer screen feels free. And it really is. You can generate endless drafts. You know what it really is? It's that endless scroll that good old Kerouac was writing on. Except it's not a paper scroll. It's just that endless word document that rides off into the distance.
[00:19:20] Jeff: So your first book, As Nature Made Him, was published in 2000, and you published your most recent nonfiction book, This Is The Voice, last year in 2021. Both were written on computers, right?
[00:19:34] John: Correct. Yes.
[00:19:35] Jeff: Has that process changed for you?
[00:19:38] John: Well, I think by the time I wrote As Nature Made Him in 1999, I was already inputting straight into the computer for speed. I was not writing drafts in longhand. And I remember feeling a bit guilty about it. I remember thinking, "Jeez, does this make me less of a writer?" Isn't that funny? Because I knew that Nabokov, one of my heroes, did it longhand. I knew that Updike did it longhand and then had it input by a secretary or assistant, I guess we call them now. So I felt like I was being less than a writer. I'm haunted by all my heroes and how they do it, which is stupid, but that's the way I am.
[00:20:16] Jeff: What happened to your typewriters?
[00:20:18] John: Well, I saved that old typewriter out of nostalgia. And not six months ago, my hipster son, 23 years old, lives in Bushwick. What are all those hipsters, Brooklyn hipsters doing now that are in their early twenties? They're getting rid of their Instagram. They're not on Twitter. They're trying not to use their computers as much. He said, Dad do you still have that manual typewriter? So he's writing on my manual typewriter. I mean, he'll stop eventually when he realizes how horrible it is. But no, I mean, that's kind of the hipster thing to do. So he's got it. It's off in Bushwick.
[00:20:49] Jeff: So that thing that inflicted so much pain on you is bringing joy to him.
[00:20:53] John: Exactly. And my dad gave it to me and I gave it to my son, which was a lovely bit of continuity.
[00:20:59] Jeff: Yeah, but it is really funny. But you're right. I guess it's part of his generation listening to vinyl. Which we grew up with and that kind of died.
[00:21:07] John: Yes.
[00:21:08] Jeff: So you spent this entire conversation slagging your your old manual typewriter. Do you miss it now that you think about it?
[00:21:16] John: I do. I can actually have a little bit. Well, I mean, just a little bit of a missing of it, you know, sort of the way you missed your high school days and you think, "What am I thinking? Thank God I'd never go back." I think ultimately the computer is just so superb. But I do it does have its possible drawbacks. And I think it is this idea that you can start writing too soon before an idea is baked in your mind, fully baked or even half baked, which is, you know better than not baked at all. And I actually have found with writing projects that if I get to the computer too fast because it generates such an elegant, finished looking copy or draft, you can fool yourself into thinking that, "Oh yeah, I'm sort of where I need to be with this piece and with the ideas in it." And that would happen less often with the laboriousness of typewriting somehow, maybe because it slowed you down so much. But with the computer because you can just kind of expand and pour down ideas, I think it may not be a pure coincidence that so many novels now are too long. You know, they're getting like 19th century novels. You know, they're just kind of bloating out because writers can just merrily flicker away at those easy to press keys and the words go down and they're auto corrected. And.
[00:22:37] Jeff: All those adjectives.
[00:22:38] John: All those adjectives come back, all those sections that are easily moved from A to B because of cut and paste. You know, we're all becoming Marcel Proust in his cork lined room overwriting. I love Proust by the way, but yeah.
[00:22:52] Jeff: Too many adjectives.
[00:22:53] John: Too many adjectives.
[00:23:04] Jeff: So before we wrap up, we like to ask everyone who comes on StoryTech about their personal relationship with technology. What's a piece of technology that you could not live without?
[00:23:16] John: I am so sorry to say that it's my iPhone, which I, true to fashion, was late in getting. Everybody else had one. My son actually when he was in middle school, was so embarrassed that he didn't have one, he had to use our flip phone, that I had to buy him one. And then I started to see how cool it was. But I still held out for a good long time. I held out first on the flip phone for a good long time. 911 had to happen and everyone in New York had to be terrified of being unconnected to everybody else at a moment's notice, even when out on the street. That's what compelled me to finally get a flip phone. But I graduated to the iPhone and, you know, I guess in 2015 I signed on to Twitter to try to promote my last novel, and that was a world that I got sucked into. And maybe three or four months ago, I finally gave in and signed up for Instagram, which is just the end of your life. I mean, now I'm checking it all the time. Donna, my wife says, You know, "That thing has grown onto your body", and it's dangerous. I mean, it's actually bad for marriages because you're checking what your friends are doing. You're trying to see what FOMO.
[00:24:25] Jeff: What if what are they doing that. Yeah. That you wish you were doing? Yeah, That is our world.
[00:24:29] John: Fear of missing out, man. It's incredible. So anyway, that's a piece of technology I can't live without and wish and hope ardently to wean myself from.
[00:24:37] Jeff: What's your least favorite piece of technology?
[00:24:40] John: Well, again, I guess I would say the iPhone. I just. I mean, the thing is, it is a torture device. It's killing me.
[00:24:48] Jeff: Oh, John, thanks for getting into the closet to tell us your tortured tale of the typewriter.
[00:24:56] John: You bet. It's a pleasure. I look forward to seeing you when you come to New York sometime.
[00:25:04] Jeff (V/O): That was John Colapinto, magazine writer and author of five books. If you want to sample John's writing, I highly recommend his 2015 novel Undone. Just know that if you are going to read it, it's more than a little, well, let's say, provocative. His most recent work of nonfiction is called This Is The Voice. It was published in 2021.
[00:25:29] Jeff (V/O): StoryTech is produced by Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in association with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station.
[00:25:43] Jeff (V/O): Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Emily Morantz. Mixing and sound design by Mitchell Stuart. Our associate audio editor is Cameron McIver. Our theme music is by Josh Spear. Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica Productions. Our executive producers are Laura Regehr and me, your host, Jeff Kofman.
[00:26:06] Jeff (V/O): Here's one way technology changes storytelling. When people listen and subscribe to a podcast, the algorithm send that podcast to more people. So if you like this show, the best thing you can do is subscribe and tell a friend. If you have story ideas, suggestions, thoughts, you can send me an email at StoryTech@Trint.com.