Writing used to be a lot harder, but if you were born after 1975, you probably don’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, except if it has been explained to you.
You sit at your desk, in front of your computer, editing your manuscript, effortlessly changing, adding, subtracting, rearranging, without your hands ever leaving the keyboard.
Need a word definition? Click, there it is. Need a selection of synonyms? Click, there they are. Want to change a character’s name? Global-search-and-replace and it’s done. Doubtful about spelling? No squiggly red line and you’re home free.
Want five originals of your manuscript? Load your printer and you’re set to go. Want to query half a dozen agents and send them samples? Power up the email program, make an attachment, and click. Done in five minutes.
Boys and girls, it was not always this easy. In fact, until about 1980—and later for most people—it was a damn sight harder. We didn’t have computers. We had ancient devices known as typewriters. No doubt you’ve heard of them, perhaps even seen a few surviving examples. Some of us, uncomfortable with composing on a machine, handwrote our manuscripts, then typed what we had written. If this sounds labor-intensive, believe me, it was.
The very first author to have a book typewritten, according to the man himself, was Mark Twain. In 1875, he dictated Tom Sawyer to a typist from a hand-written original draft. Twain had a love-hate relationship with his typewriter, an emotion computer users may find familiar. He twice gave it away, declaring it was corrupting his morals by making him want to swear. But he retrieved it both times.
In my youth, if you typed your manuscript, you had three main choices: portables—machines about the size of three large Kleenex boxes, available in various brands and qualities; full-size typewriters, which were about twice as big as portables, too heavy to schlep but very solid and easy to type on, and electric typewriters.
Most electric typewriters were simply electrified versions of ordinary, full-sized machines, but there was one exception, the Cadillac of electric typewriters, the IBM Correcting Selectric, a sleek, monster of a machine. I had a black one.
The IBM Correcting Selectric was a very expensive machine, the costliest one of its kind I believe. I bought mine directly from IBM for about $1200, as I recall. That’s the equivalent of about $6100 today. And today, as everybody knows, you can buy a decent laptop for $500 and a printer for maybe $150.
The Correcting Selectric was, in its day, a wondrous machine. At its heart was a metalized plastic element about the size and shape of a golf ball. When you hit a key, this little ball rotated in as many as three different directions, smacked up against a plastic ribbon coated with ink, leaving the imprint of a letter on the paper.
And what if, by chance, you hit the wrong key? Well, this was the genius in the Correcting Selectric. You backspaced, hit another key and the ball made contact with a different plastic ribbon, this one coated in white. The mistyped letter vanished. You then backspace and hit the right key. Your error was exterminated.
This sounds enormously complicated and maybe it was, mechanically speaking. But in ordinary practice, the actions were easily and automatically incorporated into your normal typing habits and they hardly slowed you down. You might erase a whole phrase, and very rarely a sentence, but erasing more than one line was beyond the Selectric’s abilities. “Select and delete” or “cut and paste,” if anyone ever thought of such miracles, lay far in the future.
If you wanted to rewrite something, you rolled a fresh piece of paper in the typewriter and, eventually, threw out the first version. You did this again and again and again, scene after scene, chapter after chapter. I typed my early drafts on yellow newsprint, the cheapest paper I could find. I used forests of this stuff, discarding a sheet the moment a sentence or a paragraph turned sour. I filled waste baskets to the brim, never crumpling anything for fear I might want to retrieve it and use it.
Finally, you finished. Or at least you finished the first draft. What came next? Rewrites, of course. Retyping an entire 300-page manuscript—once, twice, three times—it depended on your time, your energy and your willingness to torture yourself.
The question was, were you willing to retype the whole thing to just fix a sentence? A paragraph? A scene? To change a character’s name? A date? And how many times could you summon up the will to do this? Even with the finest typewriter on planet Earth, I can tell you that the third or fourth rewrite took all of the determination I could muster.
Only when you were satisfied, or were unable to force yourself to keep rewriting, did you retype the whole thing on white paper. That was a big moment for me. The birth of the baby. The book, the manuscript.
In the 20th century, and all the years before that, it was possible to lose this precious manuscript forever, and irretrievably, to leave it in a taxi, to have it vanish while being copied, to have disappear in a fire or a flood or through postal malfeasance. Yes, I know, you can accidently delete a file today if you don’t back it up, but even then you can often get it back.
So, okay, your manuscript was ready, after much toil. Next step, send it to the agent (s). That required hard copies, expensively Xeroxed, mailed with postage-paid return envelopes. No writers owned copying machines in those days. The Xerox 813, the first desktop plain paper copier, was introduced in 1963—they rented for $5,000 a year. You had to go to a copy center, or ask a friend or relative at a business office.
The corporations quickly caught on to this thievery. They put locks and counters on their Xerox machines to make sure no one was making unauthorized copies. Kinkos came to the rescue, for a price. They could also supply the packing boxes.
And what about those manuscripts you sent out? Sometimes they came back, a bit worse for the wear, sometimes they did not—not necessarily because they were accepted.
So, my younger writer friends, this is what writing was like before you began to practice the craft. It involved exceptionally tedious physical as well as intellectual labor. It was damn hard.
In 1979, I bought myself a Commodore CBM 128, one of the first personal computers, as well as an impact printer, which was so loud you couldn’t stay in the same room with it when it was printing. The computer came in two pieces: a monitor/keyboard unit and a double disk drive for five-and-a-quarter in floppies. I wrote “The Playboy Book of Gadgets” on this machine and left my typewriter behind forever.
The Scribe and his Commodore, c. 1979. At noon, when the sun came in the window, the disk drive ground to a halt, not to resume its work until it was in shadow again.