It’s September 1968, and I’m heading off to my freshman year of college. The most important gift my parents gave me on this momentous occasion (other than paying my tuition, room and board) was an Olympia portable typewriter. Little did I know it at the time, but that typewriter, more than any other single factor, was to have a profound effect on the rest of my life.
Are you old enough to remember writing reports and theses on a manual typewriter? How each revision frequently meant retyping the entire document? That was academic life in the “revolutionary” 1960s.
Lately I’ve been reading about the importance of uninterrupted writing. In 1968, between trips to the library for research, jotting down notes on index cards and hand writing citations, only to later transfer them via typewriter into a thesis, made uninterrupted writing impossible. It also accounted for the reams of paper I went through during that first year, and why I could relate to John Lennon’s lament at the end of Helter Skelter: “I got blisters on my fingers!” Except that album came later.
Back to the future!
“I like the future. I’m in it!”—Firesign Theater
Jump ahead to 1980, when I decided to go back to school and finish my literature degree. I’m also working in a secretarial job where I’m using an electronic word processor. I love the ability to make a minor or even major edit to a document without having to retype the whole thing, so when I got my student loan, I decided to buy one of those new-fangled microcomputers I was starting to hear about.
I said “microcomputers” because IBM had yet to introduce us to the term “Personal Computer.” Indeed, they hadn’t even entered the market yet for that product.
A trip to the only “high tech” (another new term) store and $1800 later, I was the proud possessor of both a computer and a printer. Most important of all, however, was the ability to revise a 20-page paper without having to retype the entire thing. And to an English major and aspiring writer, it was well worth the money.
My choice? A Kaypro 2X “portable” computer (portable only in the sense that it had a carrying handle—it still weighed around 50 pounds), a library of software including an office suite, and a Juki® daisywheel printer that spun words at the rate of 15 characters per second.
At the time, it was the most computer you could buy for the money.
A Logistics Problem
Wordstar®—the only word processing program available at the time—proved to be woefully inadequate for academic writing. While it could add footnotes, it had no provision for bibliographies, appendices, and all of the other assorted requirements of academic writing.
The solution? I ended up taking a couple of computer programming classes which resulted in my being able to create a document, insert a special placeholder in the document, saving it, and then creating a new file in Datastar® (Wordstar’s database sibling) with the bibliographies, endnotes, and other assorted goodies and then saving it. My programs would then read the original document, replace the placeholders with numbers or letters, and then read the Datastar file and append the bibliography file to the end of the document. (Incidentally, I did this with Borland International’s Turbo Pascal, which I had not taken any classes in.)
Until one of my faculty advisers said I couldn’t count my programming classes towards my degree because, in his words, “computers have no bearing on the humanities.”
So much for my seminal thesis on how computerized word processing affected to writing process. I carried that thesis with me for years before “improved” technology made it impossible to even read the 5–1/4″ diskettes it was stored on.
But now it’s the 21st century
And love ‘em or hate ‘em, computers are here to stay. Hell, even my iPhone with 16Gb of memory is more powerful than my Kaypro with 64Mb ever was. I have the ability to write whenever and wherever I like. But even more important, when I’m sitting at my laptop, thanks to Google® I can write without all those now-unnecessary interruptions such as going to the library for research. And as for dictionaries and thesauruses, once again they’re available without my ever leaving my keyboard, much less having to actually go to the library.
Computer programming has, at least for me, become too complicated to keep going on. Otherwise, I would have long ago created a program to brew a decent cup of tea and bring it to me. Then again, if I didn’t have to walk downstairs to brew it myself, what other exercise would I ever get?
Honestly being the best policy…
…I’m forced to admit that I do spend most of my mornings downstairs, enjoying a cup of tea (freshly brewed using only the finest whole-leaf Assam tea leaves. [Nothing but the best for this tea snob!]) whilst perusing (in the literal sense of the word) the latest Medium posts, seeking inspiration or even solace. And even that has become a Pavlovian action: I’ve been doing it for so long that now the slightest mention of tea makes me reach for my iPhone and start browsing Medium.
Coming soon to a blog post near you!
Remembering that long-lost thesis has given me an idea for my next Medium post: how my own writing is influenced by whether I’m doing it on my iPhone, iPad, or laptop.