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.


17 thoughts on “Hardware

  1. Best wishes!!

    Was thinking — could you set your CPU on a movers’ trolley (small carpeted platform on wheels) to get it out from under the desk more easily when necessary? Me, I gave up and have my power bars etc on top of the desk regardless of the visual clutter. But then I do have enough desk space to do that.

    I keep Ethernet cables, old Apple connectors and other cables coiled in a desk drawer. Modern version of the hardware drawer.

    Anyway, best wishes!!

    1. Caryn: My tower is on top of the desk. Because the wall the desk is against has no outlets (it backs on the tub-shower wall of the bathroom), the power bar needs to be on the floor, to allow the cords to reach it, and its cord to reach the outlet on the wall to my right. This house was built in the 1950s, and has at most 3 outlets per room, and every room has as many windows as they could fit in–this one has two. It’s not a big room anyway (was a smallish bedroom) and it’s overfull, to put it mildly.

      Daniel: My answer to “is it more reliable” is NO. Nothing is more reliable now, and because of the complexity of the systems that’s inevitable. Part of the problem was the “Let’s all be creative and do our own thing” attitude early on, which meant that there is no one standard, and the standards themselves are fluid because (among other things) mfgs see profit in not holding the line so there’s backward compatibility. Customers not only have to spend time learning how to compensate for what the latest “improvement” mucked up, but they have to pay for the privilege.

      The auto industry has made lots of changes under the hood without requiring drivers to change which foot uses the accelerator (they’ve also done bad human engineering by not standardizing the functions of those blasted “wands” on the steering wheel, so every time you get in a different brand of car, you have to figure out whether the windshield washing function requires moving the wand forward, back, up, down, or sideways in.) They understood that since good driving requires muscle-memory, automatic control of go, stop, and turn, it’s best not to change which control mechanisms do which.

  2. Not only that but the printers themselves become obsolete. Turned out my HP printer was what was causing my whole computer to crash. It was so “old” they quit issuing drivers for the newer OSs.

    When I put in W10 it finally game me a cryptic message before blue screening that I was able to hunt down and determine it had been the printer (and not some rogue software) that had been forcing me to reload the OS.

    Way more memory, etc., on some of these phones nowadays than pulled off the first moon shot. But is it more reliable?

  3. Printer is working. With a USB cable, not wirelessly, but that’s what I’m used to anyway, so it’s fine.

    The printer had three connection holes on its back side (the side nearest the wall, requiring me to stand in an awkward position and prop my LED headlamp (emergency night-light usually) on the printer table facing the holes to distinguish them. Everything is black, and there’s an overhang above the holes. (Human engineeering FAIL.) The actual hole for the USB cable on that end is larger than it, and is not labeled in any way–it’s just a largish hole. After attempting to use one of the others (which looked like, and is, a standard telephone jack, DUH) unsuccessfully, and calling a friend who’s installed a new printer more recently than I had, I tried the large mysterious unmarked hole. And lo–the cable connection fit.

    I turned off the computer, turned it back on, and it said “Oh–this thing the CD was telling us about–we have it.” A test page printed nicely. I have not yet found the way to make it my default printer (NO, Microsoft, I do not want to print to your OneNote and I do not appreciate your assumption that when I removed the old printer, you were what I wanted.)

  4. Congratulations on the shiny new website!

    If you feel like spending a few more hours trimming branches off the failure tree, most wireless printers (my HP at a minimum, but I believe it is a common feature) allow you to use the USB connection to configure the printer for wifi operation.

    I feel your pain. I recently had to take “cyber security training” (think of the quotes as sarcasm) as part of my job and then print out the certificate, sign it, scan it, and fax it in. After a day of fiddling with printers you can perhaps imagine how it went. It would have been OK except the training program only let you attempt a print once after completing a half-hour course (mandatory video interludes), so failed attempts were not cheap.

    1. If I’d had a handy USB cable, I’d have been done sooner. It required a trip down to the county seat (nearest office supply store) by husband, since I’m still coughing hard and often enough it’s not safe for me to drive. (These are the gasping choking kind of coughs, that go on and on and on.) But the printer is now hooked up by USB, so all’s well in that department.

  5. Glad it’s all working now. LED head torches are one of those real wonders of modern life, useful for so many things. We got ours for dog walking in the dark, but use them for so much more. Like reading our electricity meter which is in the cupboard under the stairs, at the low end while the door is at the high end, so you have to lie the length on the cupoard to read the meter.

    I read out your comments on WordStar to my OH and he gave a ‘hah’ of agreement, he too still misses it’s functionality.

    I hope your cough goes away soon, it’s been weeks and it must be so tiring.

    1. We use the LED headlamps to check for rattlesnakes on the outside step or porch before going outside at night (many people have been bitten when they stepped out in cool weather only to encounter a snake that was there because the concrete retained warmth.) And for looking in dark corners. I carry one when traveling–useful in train compartments, hotel rooms, and airplanes (which, though lighted, are not always lighted enough, and the overhead reading lamps can bother the person in the next seat.

  6. This is where I have a huge advantage – a husband who has spent most of his working life with computers, most recently as a network specialist. He has retired now, but still spends a mighty lot of his time sorting out other people’s computers.

    I learnt to type back in the day when middle-class girls like me were expected to be nurses, teachers or secretaries until they married. Using a computer has not actually improved my typing skills, as it’s too easy to go back and correct a typo. But I still touch-type, and can type nearly as fast as I speak.

  7. I took a commercial typing course my senior year in high school and have never regretted it. Touch typing ia a great skill.

    1. I don’t regret having taken it now. I resented being shoved into it when I was in high school, because *girls* should learn typing so they could get office work and/or type their husbands’ term papers and theses in college and grad school.

      It was years before I appreciated what I’d learned.

  8. I also was persuaded to take typing and shorthand during the summer between high school and junior-college. My mother had spent her working career as a secretary and persuaded me on the grounds that they *were* last-resort marketable skills. Unfortunately for that notion, I flunked shorthand quite profoundly. They wouldn’t even let me sign up for the second summer term. The typing I could at least see as useful for typing reports etc in my upcoming college courses [one of the electives I had signed up for was Journalism] so I had real motivation to acquire *those* reflexes. As it turned out, the marketable skill I acquired more or less inadvertently [somewhere between cartography and scenery design] was Mechanical Drawing. Now, in the first half of the Sixties, when I was in high school, a female had to have the bit firmly in her teeth to persuade her “advisor” to endorse her signing up for THAT! I mean, Texas A&M was only-just admitting “Maggies” in the veterinary school at the time! I am now retired from 25 years with the Arkansas Highway Department dawing roadway plans, and 10+ years before that doing welding-shop drawings & surveyors land plats.

    1. My mother, an engineer who couldn’t get work as an engineer in those days, did work as a draftsman for a small oil company; I wanted to take mechanical drawing in HS and she argued so I got to take it. (The argument against was that “a girl in the class leaning over a drawing board will distract the boys.”) I got some work in that field later, while in college, and actually thought of doing it later, but went in the military where they decided I should learn to program computers. OK.

    1. That is so cool! Love it! That’s why I had a humod (in a story) have a third arm (but his extended from the elbow–simpler joint and similar to some “deformed” reptile & amphibian limbs.)

  9. I took typing as a freshman in high school (1967), although they didn’t usually let you take it until the sophomore year. My high school regularly signed up all the freshman boys for Vocational Agriculture and the girls for Home Economics. When I found I had been signed up for Ag, I was upset, because part of the class entailed castrating calves. We had a few beef cattle, and I had just enough exposure to the practice to know I wanted nothing to do with it, so somehow I talked the principal to letting me take typing instead (the only class at that period that didn’t require students to have taken a prerequisite already). On the whole I’m glad I was so squeamish, as keyboarding skills have served me my entire academic and working life–although it would have been nice to have one of those cool blue corduroy FFA jackets.

    1. Later in my life, I spent a day helping Rancherfriends and friends of theirs work stock–dehorning cattle and eartagging them, and then–going over to the hog pens and giving little pigs immunizations against something and finally–castrating a young board. I had to sit on the boar’s head. Not my favorite thing. But I learned a lot that day. Among them that farm kids are not bothered by the sights and sounds that affect city people: the three year old daughter of the hog farmers gleefully announced that the pool of blood just outside the squeeze chute from a dehorning that was, um, harder than usual was “Pretty red, pretty red.” Someone said “Honey, that’s blood.” She said “Mommy! Blood is pretty red!”

      When I was that age, and my grandfather accidentally stabbed his thumb on a yucca, I came unglued at the sight of blood, until he talked me down, said it was tasted just like meat juice and was salty. “Taste it,” he said. I did. “See? Nothing to be afraid of. You have it inside too.” The thought that I was meat on the inside was strangely (I admit the strangely, but kids *are* aliens!) comforting. Nothing dangerous and mysterious inside me, just meat with juice. (And no, it didn’t turn me into a cannibal. Eeeuw!)

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