Thursday, December 9, 2004

Writing On Writing

Last winter I started a weekly series of reflections on writing and how I developed into the writer that I am today, such as I am. There were twelve articles in the original series, and I promised I’d pick up again as ideas came to me. Yesterday while visiting other sites I came across this post by archy, and it got me thinking about advancing technology in writing.

When I was a kid my handwriting was terrible. When I was in fifth grade my parents got me a little Sears portable typewriter, perhaps at the behest of my teachers. I never took a typing class, but within a year or so I had pretty much figured out how to touch-type. By the time I was in high school the little Sears was pretty beat-up, so I moved up to a Smith-Corona electric. I remember well how it hummed as it waited for me to press each key. For some reason it did not have an electric return; at the end of each line I had to bat the carriage back to the start of the next line, just as I had on my manual. In 1976, I got a used IBM Selectric for my birthday. It was the epitome of typewriters: the perfect letters on the little golfball element made even The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back look like it had been printed by Random House.

When I got to college I made a concerted effort to improve my handwriting. Like everyone in grade school, I had started out learning to print, then moved on to cursive in Grade Two or thereabouts. But even in high school my handwriting still looked like that of a six-year-old, so I decided to go back to printing, and within a month or so of steady practice, I had improved my handwriting to the point were it was not just legible but actually pretty good. The one problem, though, is that it slowed me down; in the time it took for me to write a sentence in printing, I could write a paragraph in cursive, even though it looked like the output of a seismograph. As I tried to write short stories or columns for the college newspaper, my mind would race ahead of my hand and I’d get frustrated that my thoughts were far ahead of the printed word. I switched to typing everything, including letters, and pretty soon, armed with Correcto tape and bottles of Liquid Paper, I was able to write almost as fast as the thoughts and words came to me.

I remember the first time I used a word processor. It was an IBM PC with some rudimentary version of Word Perfect, Word Star, Word-something. The letters showed up on the monitor as matricies of little green dots on a black background. I typed a few lines, then printed it out on a dot-matrix printer. The software was pretty complicated; if you wanted to underline a word or indent paragraphs you had to enter a series of commands. I thought that it was more trouble than it was worth, and, of course, you didn’t have the satisfaction of ripping the paper out of the typewriter and putting in a fresh new page. Typing to a little ATM screen didn’t have the romance of a writer; I felt more like a data input specialist at a bank. I remember thinking that the word processor had a long way to go to replace the typewriter, and not just because it was cumbersome, complicated, and expensive. Besides, who would ever call themselves a word processor instead of a writer? Writing is not just a process, it’s a craft. When you’re writing on a typewriter, you’re making a commitment. You’re putting ink on paper. It’s not easy to make a change once you’ve hit the key. You have to think it out as you write. Pages took hours to write as your mind and characters tried to form what the characters were saying, doing and thinking, and you really wanted to get it right the first time. I also had this romantic vision of a dedicated writer slaving over a typewriter, the rightful heir to the quill pen.

But progress caught up with me. Or, to put it a better way, it came back to get me. After eight years of steady use by me, not counting the years of service it had put in at a real office before I got it, the IBM began to falter just in time for the roll-out of the Apple IIc in 1984. The word processing software had been improved to make it easy to use and good printers were affordable. The typewriter was retired. I didn’t get rid of it; how could I get rid of the partner that had collaborated on my first produced play? It sat on a corner of my desk as a reminder of my roots.

But when you’re not near the one you love, you love the one you’re near (Finian’s Rainbow), and after a few months of using the Apple, I never went back to the typewriter. I found that I could write better when I could write, then think, re-write and re-arrange, and even start over without throwing out a single piece of paper. Plot holes left gaping at the beginning of the story could be easily filled when, a hundred pages later, I figured out how to fix it. Typos and grammatical errors vanished with the touch of a Delete key, and the words came quicker when I didn’t have to always worry about reaching for the little strip of tape. My curmudgeonly attitude about soulless technology gave way to the practical application of finding myself a more prolific – if not improved – writer.

The Apple gave way to a Gateway in 1997, which yielded to a Toshiba laptop in 2002. I can’t remember when I last used a typewriter, and the only thing I use Liquid Paper for now is correcting my goofs on the Sunday crossword. But terminology dies hard. Just as I still call the food storage appliance in the kitchen an icebox, the thin metal sheets you cover a dish of leftovers with is tin foil, and you still dial a telephone, I still type a novel or a letter. I’ll always be a writer, no matter what tool I use to accomplish it and practice my craft.