Well I’ll be a Monkey’s uncle, I do have something to be thankful for

No offense, Mrs. Nesmith, but I really don't like your invention.

I’m not a big fan of themed blog postings, but I actually thought of something to tie into the fact that tomorrow is Thanksgiving (aka, Screw The Native Americans Day, aka Take Off Your Belt and Watch Football on the Couch Day).  I generally hate it when people go around the table naming all the things they’re “thankful for” on this day, not because I’m not thankful for things but because it’s so often a massive exercise in hypocrisy.  Sorry, but one year I was somewhere I’ll leave nameless with a bunch of mainly millionaires who said they were thankful for things like friendships, the beautiful earth, and family.  Nobody mentioned their stock portfolios, tax dodges or the cool new Benz AMGs they had outside.  (“Quick, would you be more sorry if you lost a friendship or your new S-Class?”  “Well, the S-Class does have laser-guided parking and dual cup warmers…”)

But I digress.  This year, what I’m really thankful for, as I sit around watching the turkey get cold, is the word processor.  I can’t imagine life without this invention we all take for granted today.  Two scant decades ago it was still at least somewhat of a novelty.  I still remember hunting for the best word processing program back in 1990 for my brand new Macintosh SE/30.  It had—eat your heart out!—40 megabytes of storage and two 3.5″ floppy drives!  On its glorious nine-inch black-and-white screen it ran both MacWrite and a program called WriteNow, which I actually liked a lot more.  I had not yet tried that strange animal known as Word from Microsoft.

I couldn’t believe the power I had!  I could move sentences and paragraphs around. Fix typos in a flash.  Actually see how a document would look and make changes—move this over, make that bold, underline the title.  I sold my stock in Liquid Paper—sorry, Mrs. Nesmith, but I can’t believe they even still make the stuff.  I have no idea what people use it for, other than maybe touch-up paint if you own a white car.

Of course all swords cut both ways, and thanks to the word processor, everyone is now an author.  There’s tons of bad writing now, thanks to this nifty device that makes it all too easy for hacks to indulge.  What I don’t understand is the abundance of typos that still appear when misspelled words are underlined automatically these days.  Still, this new situation is infinitely preferable to The Way Things Used To Be. I remember how in 8th or 9th grade I tried my hand at writing short stories for the first time.  Of course, being I was 12 or 13, I was into science fiction, and I sent these first efforts—and I still remember them and they were awful—to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and other prestigious literary journals. They were actually read, however, because they were returned not just with stock rejection slips but short and helpful personalized critiques.

What I remember most, though, is the arduous process.  After writing drafts, the final version had to be double-spaced with certain margins and there had to be at least two copies, one for them and one for me.  That meant carbon paper.  That meant every time I made a typo, which was fairly often, I had to roll the pages out, fix both copies with the white paint, wait for it to dry (or more often blow on it), realign and insert the pages, and continue.  Being that I tend to revise and revise and revise some more, I would often start spitballing right there as I was typing my final draft, which is unwise, which I knew was unwise, but which I couldn’t resist and often led to spectacular screwups and digressions that necessitated the retyping of whole batches of pages.  What took me several days of tense labor I can now do in an hour on my iMac, and it looks neater.

Just amazing, when you think about it.  Talk about the wonders of word processing today and most people, with their smart phones and GPS devices and game machines, will look at you like you’re Rip Van Winkle.  But seriously, recall just a generation ago what it was like.

So that’s what I’m thankful for.  Without the word processor, I doubt I’d still be interested in writing.  I have to give lots of credit to the Hemingways and Faulkners and Fitzgeralds and everyone else who did it the hard way, and did it spectacularly. I doff my pilgrim’s hat in awe.  Happy Thanksgiving.


2 responses

  1. Amen, to this one John. I don’t know what I’d do without word processing. Of course there would be much less competition, I suppose, if writers were still typing their novels out on their old Royal.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!


    November 28, 2010 at 3:57 am

  2. For me it was an Underwood. At some point past warranty one of the small numbs that winds the ribbon snapped off. The result was the ribbon now only traveled one way, and then I had to rewind it by hand. This made typing even slower. I soon got rid of the Underwood when a new Wonder Product made its debut in my sophomore high school year: the Macintosh computer.

    The sad thing is my father owned a portable Remington Rand from 1938. Was in mint condition at one time, but I confess I never took care of it and it deteriorated. Found out many years later that particular model was a rarity, Underwood’s first effort at a “portable” typewriter, and I use the quotes because it weighed at least thirty-pounds, but that was portable in those days. Wish I’d kept it. Recently saw one on eBay selling for $10,000.


    November 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm

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