Why Is A Raven Like A Writing Desk?

Source: The Paris Review

Because Poe wrote on both.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s article This Faithful Machine in The Paris Review is about his attempts to track when famous writers first started using word processors. They’re an invention many writers were–and still are–grateful for. They make typing easier, although some writers have lamented the ease with which a word, a paragraph, a sentence, or an entire text can simply be highlighted and erased, lost forever. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Some writers destroy their old drafts. Somewhere in the depths of my memory I remember hearing that Eudora Welty would write pages and pages of descriptive passages around her short stories that she’d then cut out and burn. According to the story she told this to a literary scholar who was horrified, but if it worked for her it was a good system. Dylan Thomas on the would keep an old draft and write a poem all out over again every time he made a change, meaning he left dozens of copies of some of his later works.

My first computer had a monochrome amber monitor and I’d sit up late some nights and write and write and write on it. As it aged something went awry with the disk drive so I could only save a screen at a time–by printing it. The dot matrix printer left a lot to be desired too. One year in high school I was supposed to write a term paper and type it. I asked the teacher if the dot matrix printing was good enough.

“Mr. Waldrop,” she said condescendingly, “you need to stop wasting time with computers. The rest of the world uses typewriters and always will.”

When I went off to college my parents got me a Smith Corona Word Processor. It had an eight-line screen and small diskettes that could save 32,000 bytes, which I think averaged out to about ten pages. It had a built-in typewriter that would then type whatever I’d written. I named it Edgar and it made me a fair amount of money from people who also got me to “edit” their papers.

What stands out to me is how many writers who were early adopters of word processors had Wangs. I hope there’s a lot more gender parity in the publishing world now than there was then, but that also reminds me of a funny story from back in the day. A friend of mine who was really into computers told a girl there was a computer called a Wang.

She asked, “And what kind of games do you play with your Wang?”

Before he thought about what he was saying he blurted out, “Oh, I don’t have one!”

Poor guy. We could have made fun of him but decided to just let it drop.

mirrortrick1

 

14 Comments

  1. halfa1000miles

    I totally started with a Wang straight out of high school. We thought we were high tech!

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      So you came here to brag about your Wang. I’m sure you did that back then too, always telling people how great your Wang was and how much fun you had with it and how long you’d spend just pounding away at your Wang.
      I know I should resist but, really, with setups like that I can’t help being turned into an 8-year old boy.

      Reply
  2. Gina

    MUST. NOT. MAKE. INAPPROPRIATE COMMENT in reply to Linda above. But hey, finally her popularity in high school is explained! 😉

    I too had a combo typewriter/computer thing in college. I remember it betrayed me the night before a term paper was due and when I tried to rush a floppy disk to the school’s computer lab, the program wasn’t compatible. Bastard. But it was still a major step up from a typewriter, which is what I used in high school. I still have PTSD from the amount of time I spent retyping pages with minor errors in spacing or whatnot. Ugh. Horrible.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think I’ve made enough inappropriate comments that neither you nor anyone else should feel like you have to, but the line about her popularity in high school is hilarious and only subtly inappropriate, which is the best kind.
      My Smith-Corona wasn’t compatible with anything and also, as much as I loved it, was really loud. It was as loud as a single person banging out 140 words or so a minute on a regular typewriter. One night I had the terrible experience of writing something really long and not being able to find an empty disk. It was 2am, my roommate was sound asleep, so I couldn’t save what I’d written but I couldn’t print it either. And I couldn’t unplug Edgar and take him somewhere else. I had to sit there and write the whole thing out in longhand.

      Reply
  3. Chuck Baudelaire

    Is that seriously the answer to that riddle? What am I going to do with my life now that I don’t have ponder it?

    I had a Smith-Corona typewriter/word processor thing, too. It was “portable,” which meant it theoretically could be carried by one person, albeit one with more arm strength than I had at the time.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That’s one answer to the riddle which I learned from an issue of the Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew comic book. So don’t let anyone tell you comic books aren’t smart. Not that you would, especially now in the age of graphic novels. Neil Gaiman has said being told he writes “graphic novels” and not “comic books” makes him feel “like a hooker who’d been called a lady of the evening.” But that’s another story. Anyway there are dozens of possible answers to that riddle so you can keep on pondering.
      If I remember correctly my Smith-Corona weighed about fifteen pounds which was portable enough but the power only lasted as long as the cord.

      Reply
  4. Spoken Like A True Nut

    I miss dot matrix printing if only for the feeling of inexplicable satisfaction that came with tearing the perforated strips off the sides of each page, customarily followed by folding said strips together into pointless but nonetheless amusing little accordion springs.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      That was deeply satisfying. I had a banner printing program that would print sideways and depending on what the banner said it could be several feet long. Printing banners was half the fun. Pulling off those perforated strips was the other half.

      Reply
  5. Ann Koplow

    When I went to film school in the 1980s I considered getting a word processor, but instead I went directly from a typewriter to an Apple 2c computer. Why are you like Poe, Chris?

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      My initial computing experiences were with Apple computers, although I was deeply disappointed when I asked my father if he’d buy me an Apple and he said, “Hell, I’ll buy you a whole bushel.”
      Why am I like Poe? That sounds like a riddle and I can’t begin to think of an answer.

      Reply
  6. Michelle

    I was very late to the Wang Party. Actually I completely missed it. We played with ‘turtle’ in year 7 but never got to play with any wangs. I used my typewriter all through university, and hand-wrote all my essays… in pencil, with cut and paste done via circling text and drawing great big arrows from page to page.
    I don’t miss those days IN THE SLIGHTEST.
    But I still have the typewriter.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Do you ever still use the typewriter? For a brief period I used one but the major thing I do not miss is having to use White Out. The smell of the stuff made me dizzy. Then the university I went to opened a lab where we could use computers to type and print all our papers.
      But they all used dot matrix printers so I kept on quite happily with “Edgar”.

      Reply
  7. derrickwilson

    1…becaws they both can have caws for thoughts…

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Fantastic. The list of answers is growing.

      Reply

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