Tales of the Before Time: From Paper to Pixels
Back when I first started writing, as a wee young sprat, it was all paper and pen or pencil — I wasn’t yet up to the level of actually submitting things, so the idea of a typed manuscript was unknown to me. The family typewriter was an Underwood that weighed approximately as much as a boat anchor, with keys so stiff that my grade-school fingers would have buckled under the strain of pressing them. I wrote my first short stories (which sucked) and my first you-could-probably-call-it-a-novel (which also sucked) in ink on narrow-ruled notebook paper. I used a cartridge pen for preference, rather than a ball-point, and my handwriting was dreadful.
Time went by, and eventually I achieved a Smith-Corona electric typewriter, a high-school graduation present from a maiden aunt who knew me, perhaps, better than some of my other aunts (who tended to give me things like hairbrushes and pillow-slips.) That typewriter lasted me nearly a decade, and saw the production of numerous college and graduate school papers, plus a handful of not really very good short stories and the first five or six pages of a novel that never went anywhere.
The Smith-Corona electric in time acquired a companion, an Olivetti modern Icelandic manual that I used to prepare the first draft of my dissertation. (Previously, with the Smith-Corona, I’d had to add in the special Old English characters by hand.)
Neither of these typewriters, however, was very good for writing fiction. My handwriting was still dreadful, but my typing wasn’t much better — I estimated at the time that it took me about thirty minutes to produce a clean page of submittable copy.
Then came the glorious day when Atari brought out a personal computer that could be had for a price that ordinary human beings could afford. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that I was a rotten typist; the computer was a very good typist, and just as soon as I could find a letter-quality printer to hook up to it, I’d be in clover. In the meantime, at least I had a dot-matrix printer (does anybody out there remember dot-matrix?) for the early drafts. And when we finally did get a household letter-quality printer, shortly afterward it was manuscript-submission time.
The next decade or so witnessed our household’s march forward through advancements in printer technology — dot-matrix to letter-quality daisy-wheel to laser to inkjet, faster and better and faster again. And we bought paper. Lots and lots of paper. We bought fanfold paper in foot-high stacks; we bought 20-pound bond in ten-ream boxes.
And time kept moving on. One day we looked around the office, and realized that it had been a year or more since the last time we’d submitted anything as a printout on paper that we sent through the US Mail. At some point while we were busy writing, it had all switched over to electronic manuscripts submitted by e-mail, and we’d scarcely noticed.
I could spend some time at this point indulging myself in nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that I am immensely grateful for the computer and word processor combination that types better than I ever could, and the electronic mail that doesn’t insist on proper postage and a stamped and self-addressed envelope.