I was reflecting recently on how the business of writing, like so much else, has changed drastically over the past couple decades. I thought it might be fun to set down on this electronic page some memories I have of a world that has vanished.
I came of age as a writer in that brief day of the word processor. Does anyone remember that? It wasn’t a computer, yet it blew typewriters out of the water. It was a bulky machine that covered half the desktop, with a screen that swung up from its closed position against the keyboard to show about eight or ten lines of text — dark green against light green or dark gray against light gray, depending on how bright the environment was. It had one font unless you changed the plastic snap-in print wheel. I think I had two or three of those; but there was no way to get, for example, one word in a line to be in a different font (like this).
Still, I thought it was the greatest invention ever! I’d used a manual typewriter as a kid, an electric typewriter through college, and this machine was WAY better than those — I could correct typos or revise without once committing the text to a printed page, and when I printed, the manuscript would be glorious! I could store documents to be printed again — yes, to be printed all over again, without re-typing them! It sounds so laughable now. But then, these were miracles of technology. The tools of the writer had taken a quantum leap forward, and we could focus on the writing, not on the physical chores. We wondered how Tolkien, Dickens, and others had managed without these things.
There’s a quote from Mark Twain that gets reprinted now and then in the trade magazines. He’s waxing enthusiastic about the marvelous new device that allows you to get your words onto the paper as fast as you can think them. It sounds for all the world like he’s talking about a computer — or a word processor, if you read the reprint back in the eighties — but the machine he’s raving about is the new-fangled manual typewriter.
I wonder if the document survives in which some long-ago scribe is singing the praises of the miraculous new ball-point pen . . . or the fountain pen, the quill, or the hammer-and-chisel.
But back to my reminiscences: in that word-processor “era,” I was convinced that I would never need a computer. They were fine for the math and science people, but for those who wanted to write, the word processor was clearly superior. The WP produced documents that looked nice, as if they’d come from a typewriter; the computer, on the other hand, spewed ugly dot-matrix printouts, faint and rudimentary, with holes along the sides of the paper. Bleah! What serious writer would ever need a computer?
But as wonderful an electronic gadget as the WP was, we were still standing firmly in the world of paper documents. The function of the WP, remember, was to produce beautiful typewritten pages. Real pages. Paper pages. The WP didn’t connect to an invisible, interconnected world — for that matter, neither did computers quite yet.
I remember that one day my mom couldn’t get the document she was working on to save onto the diskette. (There was no hard drive: any saving you did was onto a little disk. I didn’t know you could save things onto a computer’s hard drive until several years after I’d started using one.) That was a moment of techno-glory for me, because I figured out the problem and solved it. The paper label that came inside the slipcase with every diskette had gone into the disk drive with the diskette but not come out again. The label was forming a physical barrier between the diskette and the drive’s reader. I discovered the paper in there, fished it out, and boy, was I proud of myself!
Paper . . . and my mom . . . Mom was a great conserver of paper. She would go through every piece of junk mail and save any sheet, large or small, that had a blank side. These would go into her stack of scratch paper beside her elbow at the kitchen table. They became her notepads for jotting ideas and rough drafts of stories or articles, usually early in the morning or late at night, when she had the kitchen to herself. Regulation-sized scratch paper, such as the blank backs of outdated manuscripts, occupied a drawer in her office, and would become the tablet for new, typed rough drafts.
And envelopes! Mom would save envelopes that came in the mail, too. Why, all they needed was a scratching-out of the old addresses, and they could serve again. All through college and my Japan years, I received weekly letters from home, invariably in second-service envelopes. For Christmas or her birthday, I would often give Mom boxes of brand-new business-sized or manila envelopes (a great present for a writer, and she loved getting them) — but I could probably count on one hand the times she used a new envelope out of the box. I’m sure it felt horrible to her, like shooting a buffalo and taking its skin, leaving the carcass to rot.
Mom even used recycled manila envelopes for story submissions to editors. Once a Cricket editor complimented her on her recycling.
The value was certainly passed along to me; that’s the way I did things, too. When it was time to submit a story to a magazine, I’d go to the cabinet, which was chock-full of used envelopes of every size. I’d look for two cleanish, respectable ones, make sure the old addresses were obliterated, and dutifully make my self-addressed stamped envelope to go inside my outbound submission. SASE . . . I wonder if writers younger than thirty have even heard that term? There was IRC, too, after I went to Japan: international reply coupon.
How did you find places to submit stories in the pre-Internet world? Well, you scanned the Markets sections in Writer’s Digest and The Writer. You made trips to the library and paged through Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace. That last one is where I located the address for Arkham House, and Dragonfly finally found a home.
I loved printing out and signing those cover letters. I loved the heft of the hard-copy story and the taste of envelope glue (previously licked by who knows whom). I loved the drive to the post office and the satisfaction of plunking down a little money and watching the postmaster drop the story into the outbound bin.
But even more, I love how that era made us appreciate the mail. When stories were out on submission, I’d go to the mailbox with such anticipation, just waiting for that response from an editor. I guess the memory is colored by the fact of how young I was, dwelling in that magical time when I had yet to receive a single acceptance, and any day, the mail might change my life forever. The fondness is tied up with childhood and youth, checking a mailbox in the shade of great oak trees, with dogs around my feet, on halcyon summer days when my parents were hale and the world stretched limitless and kind before me.
To discover a heavy manila envelope in the box was bittersweet: you knew at once that the editor had returned the manuscript, but there might be an encouraging note inside, a request to try the magazine again with something else, and that took away much of the sting.
Better by far was a small, light envelope from the magazine’s office . . . not a recycled SASE in your own handwriting, but a new, crisp envelope, some pristine thing never before glimpsed, perhaps fallen from Heaven — because such an envelope couldn’t possibly contain your manuscript. It could only hold a letter saying “We here at *** have all read and loved your story, and we would be delighted to publish it.”
Ah, the age of paper! It was slower; it taught us patience. Yet patience is a quality that, as a writer, I’m glad I learned.
A writer friend of mine made the point not long ago that in a few hundred years, no one will be able to access the electronic data that we in the present are producing. Who among us now could go home and play back the music on an eight-track tape, watch a movie on a Beta cassette, or recover my first novel from those Smith Corona Power Word Processor diskettes? If our descendants don’t have the exact hardware we’re using today, where will our data be? And what’s the life expectancy of hardware these days?
For his epitaph, John Keats wrote, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Brothers and sisters, we are writing our legacy in water. It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
Even now I save pieces of junk mail for memos. Still it hurts me to print on clean, new paper without a Very Good Reason. Still I don’t sleep well unless a manuscript — or even a manuscript-in-progress — is printed out (on scratch paper until it’s ready to go out and make good impressions). Here in the gentle light of my workspace, there will always be a place for paper. He is an old friend; and old friendships, as they say, are golden.