Portable, fungible

Sleep still clogged my ears as I listened to Tom Hanks talk about his typewriters. About how his cutting and pasting involves scissors, and glue.

I remember doing this. I am not nostalgic for this, even if one can make interesting cases for finger-strength and percussion, for the feel of type-indented paper.

What I delightedly remember is my family’s first word processor, Atariwriter. It was a cartridge that one could insert into the Atari 800, and later a 5.25″ floppy disc that could be loaded into the memory of an Atari 2600.

It was creative freedom.

Some years later, as a young English teacher, I learned about teaching the writing process as part of everyday English class. About how to incorporate the idea of drafts, of revision, into composition. In one of our sessions with master teachers from the field, I remember a 9th-grade teacher excitedly describing the great gift that computers brought to her classroom. They were essential, she said, in encouraging students to work with a piece of writing more than once.

I remember this, I think, because I got that. I was those kids.

What??? you’re thinking. You’re a writer. You’ve always been a writer. We know darn well that you polished and revised from the moment your three-year-old fingers first poked that old typewriter’s mechanical letters.

<wrinkles nose> Mmmmmm, ki-nda.

One of the elements in writing process as it works in classrooms is understanding publication. Every work is published, you see—it arrives where it’s intended to, for the intended audience. The trick is to suss out the publication path as one begins—or as the teacher, inform the group what the end publication will be. Hall walls? Teacher’s folder? A Greensheet contest?

The revisions and pre-publication steps one takes are different for each of those, you see.

So for the works that I did to please myself, I’d work until I was either pleased or annoyed, and set the work aside. Which might or might not be what I considered finished! (Though if I was pleased, it likely was.)

The works for school? One and done, for the most part. Especially if they were in pencil, and I was permitted to erase to fix spelling errors. Because for me, writing things by hand is slow and laborious… or almost completely illegible. Not many people have a college professor take them aside to ask whether they had a typewriter they could bring to the exam room.

As an early reader and writer, my off-the-cuff spelling was good enough, and my grammar was good enough, that what I generated on the first pass was good enough, too. Besides, it’s incredibly frustrating to have a geyser of ideas but only be able to transcribe at a creek’s flow. Exhausting, too.

Atariwriter gave me a way to re-arrange my words and ideas without the fatigue of hand-copying everything from scratch. And as I learned to touch-type, I found I could capture my thoughts nearly as fast as I generated them—from God’s lips to my ears and out my fingertips, to reverse the Yiddish aphorism.

When the word processing software people brought out scalable fonts-? Phffffft!


There’s always something lost in a shift in tools. But there’s usually something gained. One’s level of nostalgia lies, I think, in where that tool balances for you.

Hanks mentioned portability, how one simply opens a typewriter’s case and typing can begin. The only energy required is human power, which is always at one’s fingertips.

For me, the fluidity of rearranging my thoughts into increasingly effective flows is more important. Capturing the geyser’s spurts to later pour it smoothly into the reader? Priceless.

Digital composition changed my life.

3 thoughts on “Portable, fungible

  1. Ah, Kimbolglyphics. A beautiful, if dense and challenging, set of runes. As an expert, I would teach others if it were teachable, but one can only Read or Not Read. 🙂

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