Braised words: 'Julie & Julia' inspires a retro writing experiment

The popular movie about Julia Child inspires our writer — not to cook with lots of butter, but to write longhand, and then use a typewriter and carbon paper. Tasty lessons result.
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The popular movie about Julia Child inspires our writer — not to cook with lots of butter, but to write longhand, and then use a typewriter and carbon paper. Tasty lessons result.

On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon I left a matinee showing of Julie & Julia sated on many levels. The film was a savory celebration of Julia Child's fundamental buttery French goodness. She is, frankly, a hero of mine (properly, a heroine) not only due to her cooking but also because of what she accomplished as a late-blooming writer. Twelve books after the age of 45!

Meryl Streep's full-on rendition transports the audience to another time. More than that, the thing that transfixed me was the film's glimpse into the old-school arts of writing and publishing — on paper. The onion-chopping scene is a joy, but it was the onionskin, carbon paper, grease pencils and manuscripts stacked in boxes that spurred me to attempt a retro writing experiment.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a 700-page book that was produced on a typewriter over the span of eight years. In the edition gracing my kitchen, from 1983, Child comments that "Probably the most significant (change) has been the appearance of the electric food processor, which has made amazingly light work out of many formerly long and arduous cooking procedures."

Much the same can be said about the art of writing, can it not?

Substitute 'ꀜword'ꀝ for 'ꀜfood'ꀝ and 'ꀜwriting'ꀝ for 'ꀜcooking'ꀝ and a similar technological revolution is described from longhand to typewriters to 'ꀜword processors'ꀝ (how quaint even that sounds now!)

Understand also that I've long had a fascination with typewriters. My obsessive collection is now pared to two: a World War II-era Smith-Corona (whose salutary connection to the Seattle skyline is chronicled here, and an IBM Correcting Selectric II purchased from a suburban science teacher off of Craigslist for 25 bucks.

I've never used either of these to truly do the work of writing, but watching Julia Child clacking and penciling away made me want to attempt it. Also, while exercising long-dormant writing muscles lately here on Crosscut, there has been a lingering doubt about what the information technology onslaught has done to my own ability to focus and communicate more intensely. So for this piece I set myself to a challenge. Could I complete it, start to final draft slipped in an envelope through the mail slot of Crosscut's new Belltown newsroom, without using a computer to write it?

If you're reading this, it worked, but know that it was not easy, comfortable, or quick.

The ground rules were: first draft by pen and paper only, second draft by typewriter, third draft with carbon paper duplicates to ramp up the sense of impending finality. Other than using some electrons (I chose the Selectric), my one concession to modernity was: no cigarettes. If there is a fourth draft or beyond it will involve a very dry Manhattan. Full disclosure.

So how goes it? Three drafts in, there is a distinct feeling of being deeply out of my element, having made the switch to 'ꀜprocessing'ꀝ words some 24 years ago. With computers I have grown accustomed to a form of write-thinking that occurs almost as a single step, making changes in phrases by redrafting, tweaking, or blowing things up instantly along the way.

Done the retro way, one must think before one writes. Once you write you must move on unless you come back around for another draft — a step not taken lightly. It is as if you are tossing partially formed ideas over your shoulder only to turn back and look at them after you've traveled down the road a bit. Writing like this is concrete and linear in a way that writing with a computer never is.

Is it possible that the subconscious works on those ideas after you've left them on the paper? When next you read them will new thoughts come to the fore because your brain has slept on them a bit instead of hopscotching up and back a line or paragraph every few seconds? This process does generate active dissonance, a twitchy physical urge to grab a computer keyboard. Is this what kids feel when they race back to their Xbox or Wii?

Another revelation. When writing on a computer it is easy to start writing long before one knows where one is going to end up. With carbon paper that feels like jumping off a cliff. Typewriters, too, very much want to know where they are headed before they get there. The paper, the ribbon, the gnawing motor all taunt "Do you even know what you're trying to say? Have you really thought this through?'ꀝ

Well, I thought that I had but now I'm not so sure.

The point is definitely not that "things sure were better in the old days" or that "we just don't do things like we used to." This retro writing experiment instead suggests to me that modern life might have use for something like a "slow word" version of the "slow food" movement.

What Julia Child wrote about "recipe language" is also true of plain old language itself: "(It) is always a sort of shorthand in which a lot of information is packed, and you will have to read carefully.'ꀝ Perhaps the best lesson about writing learned is the same as braising beef: best not to rush it.

Twenty-eight sheets of paper consumed over three days, one packet of carbon paper and in the end — four drafts. Time for that Manhattan. As Julia says, "Above all, have fun."

Editor'ꀙs note: While we admire and appreciate the writer'ꀙs charming old-school approach to producing this piece, the editing was done in our traditional method: on a MacBook Pro, judiciously using the delete key and the 'ꀜtrack changes'ꀝ function rather than scissors and a red pen. Additional note to Matt: Here in the post-typewriter, real world we use one space between sentences, not two.  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.