Freewrite review: A thought experiment for creative writers made reality
Set Your Story Free, the Freewrite typewriter tells me, beneath a stylised illustration of Edgar Allen Poe. The command gives a clue to the purpose, and one would imagine the appeal of this backwards-facing piece of technology – a device that intentionally eschews the digital in favour of a design that foregrounds clunky keys and sturdy physical levers. As I write this very review, the text appears on a small rectangular screen embedded into the typewriter, in electronic ink, similar to what you’d find on the Amazon Kindle.
Later, I will edit this document on my laptop. The words I type now are automatically uploaded into my account, and when I have those paragraphs I’ll be able to change the many typos and structural mistakes I’m pushing forward with now.
There’s no means to go back and select previous sections of this document on the typewriter itself, save from deleting everything up to that point. As someone who has never written with an actual typewriter for a sustained amount of time, this rhythm is totally alien to me. I can’t edit as I go along, and I can’t cut one paragraph to move it elsewhere. Instead, everything is flattened onto a single, linear plane, and I’m left to forge my way forward, one mechanical clunk at a time.
So, here is what the Freewrite wants to achieve. It wants to appeal to those that ache for a rhythm away from dozens of simultaneous browser tabs. From the physical levers to the nostalgic casing design – angled towards me like set dressing from series one of Mad Men – this machine wants me to consider a way of typing that isn’t joined at the hip to emails and messages and Spotify playlists and news and Twitter and copying and pasting.
It is a strange thing, writing this. I feel vulnerable. As if I’m writing words that are hard to erase and I’m writing them without completely knowing where they are going. There is a palpable sense of momentum, however, being limited from stepping back over past sentences. My only option is to keep pushing, or to give up. Perhaps this is why depictions of typewriters in film are full of frustrated writers, tearing off sheets of paper and throwing them into bins.
There is an elephant in the room. The Freewrite Typewriter costs $499 (around £412). I’ve had to guess that number from memory, because I don’t have a tab open to search for the information, but I will correct it afterwards (I did). I also had to write it as dollars because there is no button for pound sterling. Regardless, this is a silly amount of money to spend on something that, on the surface, gives you far less than…
I stopped writing that paragraph because a colleague sent me a video on my actual computer, of a singing Japanese robot (I will attach the link here later). Normally that would go unmentioned, but I feel as if I needed to be honest with you. There’s an intimacy to writing like this. Perhaps it’s something to do with the vulnerability I mentioned before. I’ve closed the lid of my laptop now. We are alone.
Yes, the Freewrite Typewriter is ridiculously expensive for what it is. You could buy a Chromebook for less than half the price, then install some apps designed to disconnect you from the internet. You could even buy a vintage typewriter on eBay for a few tenners, although you’ll need to find ink ribbons, and it may be more of a task to lug it around with you. Why would you spend that money on…
Sorry. I stopped writing that paragraph because I decided to post the video of the Japanese singing robot to Twitter. Again, I normally wouldn’t mention this. It would simply be folded into the structure of writing we have all become accustomed to, flitting between tasks and thoughts as they crop up. I’ve put my phone away, in my pocket. We are alone again.
So the Freewrite costs an absurd amount of money, and yet, and yet. There is something about this typing and this intimacy I’m feeling with the thing I’m writing. I once went to a talk by Will Self and Iain Sinclair about their dead friend, the writer, JG Ballard.
It took place in a church hall, which was fitting because the pair spent most of the time bemoaning the loss of typewriter technology. Self in particular fetishised the pattern of writing typewriters offered, and at the time I thought: this pair of old coots and their nostalgia, pfft.
Now, however, I can start to get a grip on what they were saying. Writing in this manner does feel different, and it creates a different type of writing. A different way of thinking, even. One that befits the idea of a novel, perhaps, with its space for internalised thought.[gallery:3]
Then again, I do write creatively, and I do so on a laptop with so many windows open I catch a cold. If you want to write a novel in the 21st century, shouldn’t you deal with the mode of writing brought about by 21st-century technology?
Does retreating from that into some disconnected past mean you’re turning your back on the world you seek to depict – even throw a light on? Probably not, but it’s a thought. And it’s a thought I probably wouldn’t write, and that you probably wouldn’t read, if I was writing this on a laptop.
It is easy to write the Freewrite off as an expensive oddity, angled to nostalgic retirees and well-heeled posers, but it shows that the progress of writing technology doesn’t need to travel in a straight line. With its USB Type-C port and automatic cloud syncing, the Freewrite doesn’t ignore internet connectivity, but instead keeps it under tight control. It shows an alternate path, perhaps into a cul-de-sac, where typing doesn’t happen across 20 tabs.