Back when I was young (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) writers used very limited hardware. A pencil and some paper. A pen and some paper. Both writing instruments had been somewhere improved since earlier times–there were fountain pens, so you didn’t have to dip and write a few words and then dip again, and the pens came with metal nibs, so you didn’t have to be able to carve a goose-quill into the right shape. Pencils were cheap, and good pencil sharpeners (other than a knife) were readily available at low cost. Paper was reasonably cheap, though it wasn’t low-sulfite and yellowed or browned quickly. And then there were typewriters.
I started writing stories very early, in pencil, on Red Chief tablets of cheap lined paper. Later, I used three-hole lined notebook paper, the kind with narrower lines so I could get more words on the page and save money. And I often used a pen, initially an Estabrook fountain pen. I also wrote poetry. Or, more accurately, verse. By junior high, I had a deep callus in the second finger of my right hand from writing so much; I had it until I switched, years later, to doing most of my writing on a typewriter. That fingernail is still slightly deformed from the years of pressure.
Like my mother, I was negative about typewriters early on. When I read about writers they didn’t type–they mostly wrote in longhand and had secretaries who typed their manuscripts. Only a few typed, and they typed (so the stories went) with only two or at most four fingers. In high school, I was shoved into typing class one summer. I hated it. I almost flunked it. I never saw a typewriter as hardware, a tool for me to use for my own benefit–it was a tool intended to turn me into someone else’s secretary, typing someone else’s words for the rest of my life. (A later nine month stint in a business college was equally unsuccessful at turning me into the useful office female that young women were expected to become, if they didn’t marry right out of high school.)
I was given a portable typewriter when I finished high school and headed off for college, still a slow and inaccurate typist. I typed term papers because they had to be typed. In the military, as a systems design/programming person, I met another keyboard I didn’t like, the keypunch for turning cards into input for a computer. Being a slow typist wasn’t a problem; being inaccurate…well, let’s just say that shipping my stack of cards over to the computer location for compiling the program was always a cross-my-fingers-and-pray (usually unsuccessfully) process.
When I bought and read LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, however, I got a shock that changed my attitude and my typing skills in a few seconds. Her advice for someone who wanted to be a writer was simple: read a lot (check), write a lot (check) and learn to type. WHAT?? She explained that publishers don’t read handwritten manuscripts. So, learn to type. I did already type (slowly, inaccurately, and resentfully) with all ten fingers (I had always played piano and accordion with all ten fingers–my fingers were agile and accurate enough on keys and buttons when making sounds I wanted made.)
In that brief shock, it finally got through my head that my typewriter wasn’t really society’s tool for making me someone else’s servant, endlessly typing someone’s boring memos and business letters and reports. It was MY tool. I could use it for MY words. Resentment vanished. OK, then. Type more. Type better. I started by typing recent stories I’d written in longhand. They did look more real on typing paper, with margins and page numbers. Ha! But though it was more satisfying than the stuff we’d had to type in the various typing classes, I made it only as far as “fast inaccurate typist with a crick in her neck from looking down and sideways. ”
By this time I had inherited from my step-grandmother an old half-electric typewriter, easier on my hands than the manual portable, and I began first-drafting on it, as I wrote the humongous wordage that later become The Deed of Paksenarrion. Somewhere I still have a dried-up bottle of white-out. I used a lot of white-out. By this time also, though, a friend had what as lovingly called a Trash-80. Some of you know what that is. I couldn’t afford one. Besides, it had pitiful memory and lousy software for writing anything more than brief notes. But the advantages for an inaccurate typist were obvious. And I still had thoughts of doing some programming, with a machine that was big enough to do something interesting. So instead of saving up to buy the Rolls Royce of typewriters, the IBM Selectric, I plunked along on the old half-electric Corona, watching prices drop and potential rise on home computers, and better printers arrive on the market. Since the old typewriter keys’ faces were so worn that some letters obscured themselves (the lower case o looked more like a squashed mosquito) I paid a typist with a Selectric to type up my first book so I could submit it.
Forward a few years. IBM’s PC running DOS. I’d programmed a mainframe using DOS. Hurray! I brought it home along with an NEC Spinwriter printer (the smaller one) and put the WordStar program floppy in one drive, an empty floppy in the other, and was off to the races. Literally. To learn WordStar, I retyped everything in Sheepfarmer’s Daughter and the large chunk of Divided Allegiance I’d already written on the typewriter. Within a few days, I was able to first-draft my weekly newspaper column; by the time I finished entering all the other, WordStar held no mysteries for me. It is still, bar none, the most practical, useful program for writing anything of any length formatted quickly exactly the way you want it. My opinion, take it or leave it. (Don’t whine to me about dot commands or command-key combinations–I treated command key combinations like chords on a piano. Easy. Knew the ones I used by heart. Always worked. Never lost part of a file. And it had a “save and close” key–a thing Word has never figured out is handy, along with “head of file” and “end of file” keys.)
Computers and printers and software that allowed easy correction of errors, spell-checking, formatting, block moves, etc., and turned out clean, perfectly formed fonts, were a wonderful aid.
Except for one little thing. Obsolescence. My mother learned to type early in the 1920s. I learned to type in the 1960s. I could use her typewriter; she could use mine; I could use my step-grandmother’s. I could use the newest or the oldest. All I had to know (or be able to read) was which key produced which letter. And eventually train my fingers to type “type” as I thought (or read from something I was supposed to copy) “type.” Earlier writers needed to know how to make readable marks on paper. That was it. All the software, so to speak, was in the writer’s head.
And replacing the hardware (pencil, pen, paper, even typewriter) had become easier and cheaper over the decades. Any pencil or any pen or any typewriter can make marks on nearly all standard paper. “Compatibility” between them isn’t a problem. But for the newer stuff? Yeah, it’s a problem.
All of which leads to (and is handily keeping me procrastinating away from) the need to change out my printer. It’s finally croaked for good, after several gentle and less gentle attempts to get it to keep going over the last months to a year. The new printer has been sitting in its carton in another room for a long time. Long enough to acquire status as a flat surface on which things can be stacked. But it’s dead, Jim. It’s really dead this time. And I should, at this moment, with no one else in the house to interrupt me, be crawling under my desk (urg) to unplug and untangle wires, and then move the tower so I can unattach it from that, and then lug it out of here and lug the other one in and try to get it up and running.
Because in today’s world. a writer can’t just use pen/pencil and paper, or a typewriter: a writer needs a computer and printer and internet connection, and these have to be kept reasonably up to date, which means the writer spends a lot more time taking care of the hardware (the software article will come later) then it ever took with the old school versions. (Yes, I suppose you could write entire books on your smartphone, but your thumbs would need extensive medical treatment sooner than you might think.) No, I don’t want to go back (except to WordStar, but then you can’t email WordStar files and have them look like anything but gibberish, I found out while in Australia and needing to email something to my publisher in the US. And being able to email in your manuscripts is a great saving of time and money and paper.)
So…whatever you’re doing when you read this, think of the writer who would rather be doing almost anything else than changing out printers. Today is the day. I hope. I’m going in…..pray for me.