Is what we write how we write it?
An old Smith-Corona typewriter sat on the desk in the house I grew up in. It had been there since the nineteen thirties before my parents moved to the farm. It was my grandfather’s, but I never saw him use it. My mother didn’t either, but on rare occasions my dad typed business letters on it. I don’t remember the ribbon ever being changed. I tried typing on it as a kid, but I would have been fully grown by the time I completed anything. It took all the strength of a small child to strike the keys, and my fingers soon grew tired. My mother must have seen me trying to type because one Christmas I received a child’s version of an adult machine. The keys were merely painted on a sloping front while a metal wheel rotated on a roller. You could turn the wheel to the letter you wanted, and once it was in place at the right letter, you would depress the wheel much as you would strike a key. The wheel left an ink impression of the letter on the paper you had inserted, and the wheel moved ahead one space after it made the mark. When you came to the end of a line of type, you simply moved the roller up almost like a real typewriter. But it was not a typewriter, and I was not fooled into believing it was. I tired of it quicker than I had the real thing.
No high school student at that time typed term papers. We wrote them long hand. Students headed for college did college prep courses which did not include typing, so I never learned to type properly. I still look at the keys and cannot break myself of this habit. In college I acquired a portable Smith-Corona, carrying case and all. Portable was a misnomer. It could have been used in a body building class. I struggled to type my papers and often hired someone to do them for me.
In graduate school I hired someone to type my master’s thesis, telling her it had to be perfect. No erasures were allowed, nor white out. The graduate dean’s office hired a woman for the specific job of inspecting all theses; she went through all them page by page measuring margins, looking for typos, use of white out and erasures. I asked my typist to buy a new ribbon for her typewriter so the original would be sharp. She did, but she clearly did not know how to install it, because entire pages of the document were blank or grey, not black. She gave the final thesis to me, and I noticed the problem at once. I told her I would not pay her and asked her to redo it or I would not pay her. She had her husband who was a lawyer call me. He threatened to sue me. I dropped my insistence she redo the work. I did the typing myself, slowly and painfully. It took forever, but it passed the inspection of the picky inspection woman.
For my doctoral dissertation I hired a typist recommended by the university—no problems.
The teaching position I was hired for after I received my PH. D. required publications as part of the evidence of being a serious scholar, meriting raises in pay as well as promotion in rank. I loved accomplishing the research, but I was stuck with typing the final manuscripts to be submitted to scientific journals. I traded in my not-so-portable Smith-Corona for a used IBM Selectric junked by a nearby Ag and Tech school. It certainly helped me type faster without fatigue, but I typed no better.
Then the world changed. Personal computers arrived. I remember a colleague of mine who was the first person I knew to dip her foot into the if-you-don’t-like-what-you-wrote-you-can-delete-it school of writing. It was shocking. I always thought that part of writing was struggling with rewriting because the paragraph wasn’t what I wanted. Start over and redo it. The piles of papers with type struck through on my desk and those so bad they were in my waste can were testaments to my creative struggle (yes, I do think science is creative). I argued that being able to simply remove what you didn’t like and replacing it with what you did like with the tap of a few keys would change the creative process. I was correct. It has changed that process.
Looking back on that shift from typewriter to computer I know I was more productive after I purchased my computer. It was faster to write the paper for publication. When I left the university and began my career as a mystery writer, I realized I would never have attempted to write fiction if not for the computer.
Still, as we all know, “writing is rewriting.” That is as true today as it was in the days of pen and ink and typewriters. It’s easier to do it now. Yet I sometimes wonder what kind of a writer I would have become if I couldn’t just hit delete when I hated something I’d just written or save something to be moved and inserted somewhere more appropriate. Computers have changed the creative process. I’m still not certain just how. Am I more creative or just faster at writing? Have you ever thought about this? Do some of you still write in long hand or use a typewriter?
Some things never change. I still look at the keyboard.