Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Tools of the tirade


This piece in the Paris Review reminds me that I was a pretty early adopter of the personal word processor. Yes, in the 1980s …

I remember how annoying it was to type and retype my stories, even when I had access to an IBM Selectric at work. And if there wasn’t a photocopier handy you had to resort to carbon paper, which — don’t get me started on carbon paper.

Then, in 1983 I got a job in an office that had something of a word processor on its now medieval-seeming computer system. I used it to write my very first attempt at a novel. This was not easy because I had to insert HTML-like codes for paragraph breaks and spacing, and it was hard to format simple things like margins. Still, it was easier than typing and retyping … and retyping again.

I read an interview somewhere in there with the late great Stanley Elkin (cited in the Paris Review piece and shown above with his ‘puter), in which he said something along the lines of, “If you’re a writer, you need to run right out and buy yourself a word processor. It will change everything.”

I followed his sage advice. I ran right out and got myself an Apple IIe and a dot-matrix printer. And reams of paper with perforated edging strips.

If you’ve never seen an Apple IIe, let me just say it seems now like something that would hinder writing rather than help. Its disk drive took floppies. One slot was for the software (mine was called PFS Write) and one was for your files. Storage on a floppy was probably close to 0 in today’s terms.

But, damn it, that machine helped me get my novel out of my head. (I’d given up on the work system when a co-worker found my manuscript and ran around going, “Oh my God, look what’s on the word processor! It’s a sex scene!”) Slowly — very slowly — but surely, I pecked away at the strange little keyboard, watching my words flow across that strange little screen in that strange green-on-black type, and one day the book was finished. Without a leaf of carbon paper. Sure, it took up about eight floppies, but it was all there, and it looked spectacular when I printed it out.

The hardest part, in retrospect, was taking all those perforated strips off the four hundred pages.

Anyway, children. Grandchildren. Appreciate your word processor. Adore your find and replace. Don’t yearn for the past, even though we had better music.

The world has improved since my youth … at least for writers.

14 comments on “Tools of the tirade

  1. kingmidget
    May 17, 2016

    My dad is a writer also. While he never got a novel published, he published seven or eight books on writing. This was all in the 70s and early 80s. He wrote them on yellow pads and my mom typed them on an electric typewriter. And then retyped them after he had edited them. And then retyped them after he had edited them again. It just seems somewhat unfathomable to consider all of that.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 17, 2016

      I hope your mom was a good typist! It took incredible patience to do that …

      • kingmidget
        May 18, 2016

        She was. Otherwise the marriage may have never survived.

  2. S.K. Nicholls
    May 17, 2016

    Your last few lines really made me laugh hard. I shudder at the thought of what my grandchildren will be writing on. I owned a Brother word processor. It was my refuge from the world to spend a couple hours each night tapping away. It was working when I stored it away in the garage about ten years ago. I have floppies stacked in boxes and can’t even begin to tell you what’s on them. I had several ribbons for it and planned to print out what was there recently. We ended up tossing the word processor because even my magician RS couldn’t get it running again. I don’t know if it would be worth it to try and recover what’s on those discs, but I’d like to try.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 17, 2016

      You still have your floppies?! I jettisoned mine long ago, after salvaging everything I could from them. Stacks and stacks.

      Hard to believe how much things have changed!

  3. John W. Howell
    May 17, 2016

    My first writing instrument was an Apple IIe. I remember it so well and I thought the floppies were like magic. I could do so much more than with a composition notebook.

  4. 1WriteWay
    May 17, 2016

    Egad, this post is bringing back memories, some of which I’d rather forget, like the “word processing pool” I used to work in in the early 80s: a room full of clunky word processors with spitting dot matrix printers and … the backup disks. All that humming and drumming is partly responsible for my weird hearing loss and the fact that I have to have hearing aids at my (relatively) young age. And yet, nothing compares with the first time I typed a story (never mind a novel) on a computer and realized I would never ever have to retype the whole thing all over again just to correct one sentence. And I do take that for granted now. Floppies? My god, I don’t even remember to use a memory stick these days. I just (automatically) back up to the “cloud” … (yes, I know, that’s not the safest thing to do).

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 21, 2016

      I didn’t know you wore hearing aids … I hope they help enough to give you normal-ish hearing.

      But yeah, the thrill of not typing something over and over again is the gift that keeps on giving. Yay, PCs!

      • 1WriteWay
        May 23, 2016

        I’ve been wearing hearing aids for 10+ years. It was the audiologist’s theory that the white noise of mainframe computers wipe out a few key frequencies. But the hearing aids do help a lot and sometimes it’s nice to not hear 😉

  5. Audrey Driscoll
    May 17, 2016

    I have this theory that liberation from the typewriter (and carbon paper!) eventually led people to write stories and novels who would never have bothered if they had to type and retype. Only the most dedicated writers persisted with the primitive technology of the pre-computer era. But now that technology has made it easy to write and publish, so many are doing it that we’re drowning each other out.
    (I still have a load of floppies somewhere, AND a box full of longhand manuscripts).

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 21, 2016

      I think you’re right about that, Audrey. I remember going through a horrendous cut and paste job on a story — literally cutting and taping parts of it in different orders — and thinking, Wow, I must be a writer if I’m doing this!

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This entry was posted on May 17, 2016 by in Writing and tagged , .
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