Thursday, June 13, 2013

Me and my writing machines, Part 2

(This is the continuation of a post about my history with writing machines.  Fiction writer and blogger Cathy Day has issued a challenge for any and all bloggers to document how the technology they use, and how they use the technology, has evolved.  You can check out her story here.  Meanwhile, you can check out the beginning of my story in my previous post.  After you finish this here Part 2, dear reader, why don't you write up your own history with writing machines?  But please do link to mine, if you don't mind.)

By the time I entered graduate school I was a proficient typist but hardly a fast one.  Suddenly, with my Mac's keyboard, I felt like I was zooming.   The idea that I could write faster than I could type was long gone.  It seemed crazy that I ever believed that.  Thing is, though, at George Mason I only used the computer for document creation.  There was no online culture in the late 80s/early 90s-- because there wasn't a world wide web yet.  It took me five years to earn my MFA; then I taught as an adjunct for two years.  Then, in 1993, newly married, I began a second graduate program, this one a Ph.D. program at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.   Of course I brought my Mac with me.  It was still going strong.  Before I left the DC area for Lafayette I ponied up for a personal laser printer.  A computer literate friend of mine sold me on the idea, saying they were the wave of the future.  It sounded like--and was--a much more elegant, even beautiful machine than the terrible dot matrix printers I was used to.  I was so ready to give them up that I essentially succumbed to an indulgence.  The printer looked something like the picture on the left.  I loved having the personal laser printer, but I eventually decided it was a mistake.  The machine was heavy for one; worse, the replacement cartridges were ridiculously expensive, equal to about 1/4 of the cost of the machine itself.

In our first semester at ULL, my wife, in a Research Methods class, learned about something called
e-mail, and her professor insisted the whole class sign up for it.  So I did too.  I sent a few experimental e-mails but didn't really use it much, not until later in our Louisiana stay.  Even then it wasn't something I felt compelled to check regularly.  While we were at ULL the internet started taking babysteps.  America Online and Prodigy got big, and the chat room culture started to develop.  I pretty much ignored all that.  I had classes to complete and stories to write.  (It was a Ph.D. in English, but one that included a large creative writing component.)  In my last year there, I also had an infant son.  If I ever went "online" (and I can't remember the mechanism exactly because when we first started at ULL not only did Google not exist but neither did its immediate predecessors, like Alta Vista) it was to look at the holdings of the LSU library and other libraries.  Meanwhile, I did eventually need to replace my original Mac with the newer, somewhat prettier Mac Classic.  I remember it looking like the one in the picture.  This was during Apple's dark years without Steve Jobs.  Rumors started that their products weren't as pristine as they used to be--and I knew people at ULL that wouldn't think of even going near a Mac--but I remained loyal, if only because all my word processing files were in a program that only worked on Macs.  If I switched to a PC, I could never again open up my files.  All those stories and papers would be lost!  Speaking of lost, I nearly lost my dissertation in 1997 shortly before I was supposed to turn it in.  The file I was using got corrupted and wouldn't open--a common problem back when everything we wrote was stored on 3.5 inch discs.  (A feature of both Macs and PCs back in the 80s and 90s.)  I held my breath and tried to open a backup file I had made (and which was probably stored on the same disc).  Yes!  It worked!  Now I could graduate!

We moved to Arkansas in 1997.  Within a couple years of our coming here, the internet was going gangbusters.  It's all you heard about.  And while I'd started using it for a lot more than checking library holdings, I still wasn't somebody who wanted to be on the computer all day.  If anything, this technological revolution was throwing me a nasty personal challenge.  I'd begun graduate school in a time when most people still didn't own a personal computer; I'd finished it in a time when the internet still didn't rule the world.  I was trying to jumpstart both my career as a teacher and my career as a writer, to say nothing of trying to be an active father--in other words, I had no free time--and suddenly technology I had no experience with was being used regularly in the classroom by several of my colleagues.  Despite the fact that I used a computer everyday, I felt like a Luddite.  I was done with my formal education, and now I had so much more to learn.  I did try; I really did.  I remember one long ago student complimenting me on how capable and willing I was with email.  Hah!  I was stupidly proud of the comment, but of course it seems like not too many years later when we started hearing that "email is for old people."

When I went from being a part time instructor to a full-time one at UCA, I received my own office and my own PC.  So now I worked on both kinds of personal computers, but sharing files was impossible.  Some things were Mac files--mostly my creative output--and some things were PC files: mostly work stuff.  Given how clearly dominant PCs were in both the business and publishing worlds, I realized I might be limiting myself by continuing to only generate short stories on my Mac, but that's what I did.  Meanwhile, about a year or so after they were introduced in 1998 I upgraded to one of the first generation iMacs.  As silly as they look now, those bright boxes with their handles on top were considered revolutionary at the time, and I loved mine.  Not only was it cute--an indigo colored computer!--but it was a workhouse.  The thing never died.  It barely hiccupped.  I wrote my first (never to be published, thank god) novel on it, and my followup (Burnt Norway),  along with an ungodly number of short stories and teacher material of all sorts.  Realizing 3.5 inch discs were both unreliable and on their way out, I started using an external CD-ROM drive and CD-RWs to store backup files of everything.  (My budget version iMac opened most CD-ROMS but not CD-RWs.)  I still have the CD-RWs around, although I never have need for them anymore.  The CD-ROM, you'll recall, was quickly outpaced by the jump drive and then, about two seconds later, by the emminently practical, and more powerful, portable hard drive.

After a while, though, I just could no longer get software to work on my beloved indigo blue iMac.  So about six years ago I upgraded once more to the latest iMac line: those with wide flat screens that sit atop a stem.  (An idea that supposedly came to Steve Jobs as he stared at sunflowers.)  It's a great machine.   I wrote my Van Gogh novel on it, along with the three (mostly top secret) other novels.  It works fantastically well, like Macs usually do; but the best part of all is that when I bought it I could also purchase Word for Mac.  Now I could work in Word regardless of what computer I was using.  This literally changed my life.  No more worries about how to convert when a journal insisted on Word documents (as most did).  No more emailing myself large blocks of text and then playing with them on my work computer.  No, everything was in Word from the get-go.  Things got even better when I signed up for Dropbox two years ago.  Now, I didn't even need a jump drive or portable hard drive to carry my files from computer to computer.  I could just store it to Dropbox and access it anywhere.  What an impossible luxury.  (By the way, the picture on the right shows my actual, lovely, dear current computer--my favorite writing machine of all time!)

My entry into social media and blogging are relatively new developments.  For years I'd heard that "you have to be on Facebook."   I resisted for the longest time but finally signed up a few years ago.  For the first year or so I was barely active at all on it.  Even now, I don't check it everyday.  I'm just not someone who thinks to run to Facebook as soon as something happens to me, even less so as it's happening to me.  Meanwhile, I started on Twitter only last March.  As someone who tends to write too long (sorry!) it's probably good for me that on Twitter you're limited to 140 characters.  I find Twitter interesting, but truth is I don't check it nearly as much as I should.  And I barely ever post.  It's like texting.  I can do it.  I just don't do it very much.  That will probably change, just like everything that's ever gone on between me and writing technology.  One exception to my late adaptor habits: For some reason when the iPads began appearing in 2010 I became very interested very quickly, despite the fact that owning an iPhone has never interested me.   The e-reader component interested me more than anything, along with being able to do things like watch Netflix.  So I eventually bought one.  It's a handy device.  I use it in a variety of ways--checking email, surfing the web, reading iBook files--and it's how I signed on to Twitter.  When I'm on the road, it's how I check on and post to Facebook.  But I don't really write with it.  Some people--some of my students I mean--can type using that tiny little iPad virtual keyboard.  I can't, even though otherwise I can and do type like a demon nowadays.  I've had so much practice.

My biggest online writing presence, something I started with my current iMac, is this blog.  I began it in 2009 during my sabbatical.  At the time I thought it might be interesting to share with the world what I was learning about Van Gogh and how I was using what I was learning in the novel about him I was writing.  Even from the start, however, I did not want the blog to be just about me or  my novel or Van Gogh.  I wanted to discuss historical fiction generally.  And I have, although I've wandered into other subjects from time to time: like what happens in my classes, and what's happening at my university, and what is my history with writing machines!  Finally, the real subject of my blog is writing.  Period.  And that makes sense.  It's what I know the most about.  I love blogging, but typical of me, by the time I started doing it some people began saying that blogs were passé.   Maybe they are.  Maybe Twitter is doing them in.  But as a long form writer, I can't stay away.


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