Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Geezer Speaks

Setting: high school
Event: writing of first term paper
Length: five pages
Equipment: a manual ribbon typewriter, carbon paper, white bond paper, an eraser pencil
Required skills: decent typing ability, patience in abundance, inclination to prayer

This is for all you computer-generation writers who can type words as fast as they stream from your brain. It is especially for those who are unconcerned about spelling, punctuation, grammar, proofreading or editing.

I roll the paper stack (two sheets of bond paper with carbon paper wedged between) into the typewriter, take a deep breath, and begin pecking away, hoping the keys don't jam up if I go too fast, or bobble if I don't type with just the right firmness. Gratitude wells up when a few sentences go by without a typing error. But when one occurs, I carefully roll up the paper a few lines, and cautiously apply my eraser pencil to the offending letter. There is always the chance that the paper will tear or the ink will smudge. (No white-out available on the market yet!) If that happens, I get the satisfaction of furiously yanking out the paper, and after rescuing the carbon sheet from my ire, wrathfully wadding up the ruined bond paper and starting afresh--from the beginning. In the event that the erasure is successful, I carefully roll the paper back down in place, hoping that the alignment is still good. To complete even a single page might mean several starts, and once finished it is lifted carefully, even reverently, from the rollers and set well away from any hot drink cups, dogs who eat homework (I never met one) or thoughtless younger siblings.

Footnotes were always tricky, because with one hand you had to roll the paper up half a line and hold it while typing the number with the other hand. Then you had to make sure you left enough room at the bottom of the page for the footnote to fit in. Sometimes you had to hold the paper in place with one hand and type the footnote with the other hand, hunt-and-peck style, because otherwise the paper would fall out or the line would go crooked.

I could go on for a while about the agonies of early typing methods, but my point is this. Words were valuable when each one was pecked out anxiously, with beads of sweat on a brow furrowed in concentration. You thought first and typed later, because a thoughtless expression meant a frustrating restart. Hand-written first drafts were actually golden, magical tools that left the typist free to concentrate on the craft of typing, since the craft of writing was complete.

Now we all have blogs. Words come at you hard and fast, and you have to decide which ones to dodge and which ones to meet head on. Never has more writing been done, and certainly never in such a public way. It is like finger-painting--no, graffiti--in the world of art. Everyone can do it, but few become masters. It has become a less valuable commodity, because it comes so easily and carelessly.


John Lynch said...

All this is true, but the flip side is that now there are fewer barriers between ideas and the expression of ideas. This means that many people with good ideas who were previously constrained by the cost of information dissemination can now share those ideas. Sure, you get some bad apples, but I think it is worth it on the balance.

Lisa said...

For the most part I agree with you. However, I would challenge the words "some" and "bad" in describing apples. There are lots of apples out there. Few are excellent. Perhaps "some" are top quality, but most are mealy, mediocre, bruised and tasteless. These are not the "bad" apples--just inferior ones. "Some" are outright rotten or wormy and not worth consuming in any form.

What most distresses me most is the appalling grammar, horrendous spelling, and bad taste. The acronyms, abbreviations, and slang make a lot of the writing unintelligible to literate people accustomed to complete sentences which are defined as complete "thoughts"! It's the "easily and carelessly" that is wearisome to sift through.