Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Me and my writing machines, Part 1

Cathy Day, through her Big Thing blog, has issued another challenge to the creative writing blogosphere: Give an account of your personal history with writing machines.  Click here to check out Cathy's very thorough, and thoroughly entertaining, history.  Here's mine.  The only writing machines I touched prior to high school were pencils and pens, which must mean that my teachers never required anything that wasn't handwritten, though I can barely recall.  It wasn't until my tenth grade year that I even took a keyboarding class, this at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.  Except we didn't call it keyboarding then.  We called it typing.  Because that's what we did: on a collection of clunky old metal machines that were probably donated to the school by their previous users.  The course was "taught" by a chubby, prematurely balding Trinitarian brother with short, fading blonde hair and a rubicund face.   I say "taught" because what his teaching amounted to was mostly calling out sequences for us to pound out on those archaic devices.  (No he didn't blindfold us, but that probably would have been a good idea.)  Sometimes you really did have to pound, because the keys on old, non-electric typewriters got stuck pretty easily.  I suppose the teacher must have graded our work--since I did get a grade--but I can't remember that either.  As fusty and antiquated as a typing class sounds today, I was quite happy to take it, glad for the opportunity, and I can tell you my typing skills improved.  Or, rather, they came into existence for the first time.  This despite an accident that happened that semester as I tried to cut through a piece of frozen hamburger meat with an extremely sharp knife.  (It was such a stupid thing to do I'm not going to say anything more about it except the following.) Yes, I severed myself, nearly slicing my left pinkie to the bone.  (I still bear the scar.)  For weeks I had to keep the finger heavily bandaged and as a result, in typing class, I developed the habit of moving my left hand ring finger over to type As and Qs and Zs.  It's a habit I still have today and can't break.  Part of my permanent muscle memory.

As a result of this class I could begin typing my high school term papers, such as they were, and indeed I did whenever required to during my junior and senior years.  I can't remember much about the typewriter we kept around our house except that it was heavy, black, functional, and decidedly non-electric.  The summer before I left home for college--that is, the University of Virginia in 1979--I bought an electric portable typewriter.  I recall searching the classified ads in the Washington Post and seeing a notice placed by a woman in northern Virginia.  She turned out to be a friendly, cheerful, middle-aged lady with a trim helmet of short gray hair, a kind face, and small, smart glasses.  When I asked why she was getting rid of it, she explained that she was a freelance writer and needed to upgrade.  To what I can't recall, certainly not to a word processor since no one used them then.  So it must have been to a fancier, bigger electric model such as IBM was pumping out.  The machine she sold me--for something like twenty dollars--was a handsome sky blue thing, smart looking and quite compact, fitting easily into what I like to think of as a sleek, contemporary case, although to use that vocabulary today on something as clumsy as a typwriter sure sounds ludicrous.  (In my memory at least it looks a lot like the machine in the picture above.)  That typewriter saw me through all four years of college and several more after as I carried it from address to address to address to address through Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.  I typed dozens of short stories and poems on it as well as academic papers of all kinds.  I was thrilled that it could handle erasable ribbon, given the quantity of my mistakes; but I have to admit that it also frustrated me sometimes.  I remember one time having to manually yank the ribbon through the machine word by word as I typed because something was wrong with the mechanism.  (Black fingers, black fingers.)  I also remember one time during my last semester at UVA when I decided to just write my damn politcal theory term paper--in my small, cramped block print--because, although I was a semi-experienced typist by then, I still thought I could write faster than I could type.  (The TA who read my paper thoroughly enjoyed it except that about 2/3 of the way through he could no longer follow what I was saying, because my handwriting had degenerated so badly.  He apologetically gave me an A-, which was probably a lot better grade than I deserved.)

A few years after I graduated from UVA I started in the MFA program at George Mason University.  I still was working on that typewriter.  In the interim years, I had typed a variety of essays and stories and a lot of really bad poetry on that machine.  Also, of course, job applications, and, for a year and a half or so, a series of feature articles that I wrote on an occasional basis for a newspaper in southern Maryland.  When I started at George Mason most of the other students in my workshop courses were using typewriters too, but the few who typed their poems into computers produced work that looked awfully pretty on the printout.  I remember my poetry professor, Peter Klappert, warning one student not to let the stylish look of the computerized page fool her.  In other words, You're writing the same crap everyone else is, honey, and don't forget it.  (Actually, Peter would never say "honey" to anybody.  He probably wouldn't say "crap" either.  Maybe "garbage.")  I began to notice that the secretaries in the English Department office were typing into word processors instead of typewriters--this was brand new.  Meanwhile, my father, a chemist who had recently started working at a USDA lab in Beltsville, Maryland found himself surrounded by a gang of first generation Mac cultists.  They talked him into buying a Mac for his home office and then Dad, with the righteous dedication of a convert, started pressuring me to buy one.  Any other kind of computer besides a Mac was unthinkable!   In the winter of my third year at George Mason (academic year 1988-89), I gave in--rather willingly, I must say.  At that point the writing was on the wall, so to speak, for the old technology, and truth be told I was sick to death of typewriters.  With student loan money I bought myself a Mac (it pretty much looked liked the one in the picture) and never turned back.

Next post: The rest of the story: a life of both PCs and Apples as the latter gets simultaneously bigger and smaller.  I discover email (gasp), then the internet, then (much later) Facebook, then (only recently) Twitter.


  1. Hey, John! Great post! My mom let my sisters and me choose our own path in high school in terms of classes, except for two. Each of us had to take both accounting and typing (this was the 80s...PCs existed but were outside our economic reality). I'm so thankful for both of those classes...every single day.

  2. Yes, accounting would have been very useful! Especially when I started living off campus at UVA and thus needing to buy all my own stuff. Btw, after I put up the post I remembered that I did have a little typing experience before that class. Someone in our house, probably my older sister, bought a "home typing" course. I think it came with a bunch of LPs. I fooled around with that some when I was a kid. Shades of the "home guitar" course I bought for myself in high school!