“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway (but really very much apocryphal, the way most good quotes are)
I am kind of obsessed by this pair of photos taken when I was two, somewhere on the streets of my home town of Szczecin, Poland. This is so unmistakably me, even at this minimal age — fascinated by a strange artifact of a book I don’t really understand, and yet that book already feeling more important to me than the rest of the surrounding world.
One of the fun parts of getting older is noticing all the strands that connect things in your life. Of course, looking at these photos, it makes perfect sense I’d end up writing. End up caring about typography. End up working at Medium. There’s something endearing in the idea that you were already fully yourself at the age of two.
But it’s also largely an illusion. There are other strands, and other photos. We are all pattern matchers. In an alternate universe, I could grab that other photograph of me playing with a few kittens to justify my career as a veterinarian. Or the one where I dressed up as an autumn tree to explain why I joined Greenpeace. Or even grab the photos above, now glossy and blown up, raise them above my head at a loud party, and scream “I’ve always been into fashion! No wonder I ended up at Vogue.”
In our universe, this was an opening slide from one of my early talks given internally at Medium. Seventy-five more slides followed:
It seems kind of an obvious talk for me to give, but it wasn’t then. I didn’t know much about typewriters in 2014. What happened is that I’ve noticed conference rooms were named after typewriters, and the actual typewriters strewn around the office — and started being curious. I wondered if there was a relationship between Selectric and Electromatic (there was); I was amazed that Casio was actually making typewriters (they were too); I started noticing the small and big differences between those old machines and today’s keyboards. I started digging. Then, one Friday afternoon, I shared what I found.
The same thing happened with the building Medium was in at that time. My co-worker Sarah and I were curious; we did some research; we delivered a company talk (and a Medium post). But there’s one big difference: with the keyboards, I never stopped.
Today, I know all sorts of keyboard-related things. I have hundreds of books and a 175-gigabyte database of many sorts of keyboardy stuff. I made friends in Turkey and, more recently, Spain. Point me to a key on your keyboard and I can tell you its story: Why is zero right after 9, even though it would make more sense for it to be just before 1? What’s so incredibly important about Scroll Lock? What did everyone miss when they were complaining about Esc missing from recent MacBooks? Why is Shift called “Shift”?
I’ve recently embarked on a mission to find the book in those two photos of me long away, far ago. I identified the hummingbird on the cover, I matched the date, I measured the length of the visible title, I looked at the shade of the cover. Then I ordered a copy from a Polish antykwariat. Now it’s on my desk.
It borders on incredulousness how much more I can tell you about this book today, thirty-odd years later. Perhaps Moore’s Law doesn’t apply just to computers. I know it’s a book and what to do with it. I know it’s a collection of short stories from a modernist New Zealand writer. I could read it both translated and in the original, and report on the differences. I can tell you about the printing process. Complain about its typesetting. Speculate on the acidity level of the paper based on how yellow it is today.
(Okay, I made that last one up. Although I’m pretty sure I could figure it out if I wanted.)
And yet, despite all of that, I still feel about this book — and most books — the same way I think I felt at the age of two: a mixture of awe, reverence, and admiration. You know that common quip “you should have some coffee with your sugar”? Those who have ever visited me know I have books, and my living room awkwardly surrounding them.
There are other strands, and other photos. We are all pattern matchers. One of the fun parts of getting older is noticing all the strands that connect things in your life. But here’s one part that’s even more fun: you can take those strands, and play with them. Tear some apart. Take a closer look at others. Reconnect a few in new ways. If the past patterns can be illusions, the future ones are yours to own.
And so, I will take time off work, and spend it writing a book. It’ll be a book about the human history of keyboards: from typewriters, through teletypes, to that thing in your pocket where autocorrect reminds you of Murphy’s Law with sadistic regularity. It’ll be a book of stories your keys want to tell you. I have many books in me — holy fuck, do you know how amazing it is to actually just be able to say that? — but this is the one I’m starting with.
I’m terrified, to be honest. It’s the kind of project where I’m not sure yet whether it is failure or success that I secretly desire. I know it’ll be very lonely. But I want to pull on this strand quite a bit more. I want to spend all of my waking time writing, and then see where I will end up on the scale from zero to “Here’s Johnny!” I want to look the two-year-old me in the eye, nod, and say “Don’t worry. I got this.”
I hope you wish me well. I will report back. But in the meantime, for months on end, I’ll be sitting down at the very thing I’m writing about, that almost 150-year-old artifact full of mysteries, accidents, dreams, desires, stories — and bleeding.
Written in December 2016. The original version of this message was sent internally to my co-workers at Medium, when I was leaving to write. Read more about the Shift Happens book, or stay in touch: