Hi everyone – I’m Marina Endicott. I’m a writer based in Canada, and my previous books include Open Arms and Good to a Fault. I’m very excited to say that my new novel The Little Shadows was published last week in the UK and you can find out more about me and my writing on my website here: http://marinaendicott.com/ Thank you to Hive for asking me to do this guest blog. Over the coming week I’ll be talking about the processing of words—about letters and fiction, about how we talk about our lives and failures, and how we shape experience into art.
Last week I was steered (from Facebook, I think) to a site about the history of word processing. Matthew Kirschenbaum is researching and writing a book called Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, which will come out from Harvard University Press in 2013.
He’s looking for the early adopters, “and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both ‘highbrow’ and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction.” Early adopter! I love being one of those.
I wouldn’t be a writer at all if it weren’t for the IBM Displaywriter, a word-processing system used by the Canadian government in the early 80s. Working my way through acting school, I’d already spent one summer typing for the government temp agency, far better paid than waitressing. But when I went back the next summer they didn’t need any typists. As I turned away dejected, the manager asked, I don’t suppose you do word-processing? Yes, I do, I said, and he booked me for a test on the IBM Displaywriter the next day.
I’d never even seen a word processor. I went straight to the IBM store in Toronto and played around on the Displaywriter they had on the floor, talked to the nice guy selling them, had a quick peek at the manual.
The next day I did the qualifying test, and failed it miserably. I tried to put the floppy disk into the slot backwards, couldn’t do a mail merge: it all went downhill from there.
And yet, the next morning I got a phone call telling me to report to the Ministry of Education as a word processor operator. I did not argue. In a spacious room with the other, permanent word processor operator—what an unwieldy title!—I sat at the machine and screwed up royally, over and over. The other woman’s contempt for my ignorance was massive, but from time to time, when avoiding doing some other thing, she’d give me a pointer or two. And the manual was right there, in plain English.
A week later the manager of my branch came in to say that they’d called to tell him that I’d failed the Displaywriter test and should be drummed out in disgrace. He was laughing at their error: “But you’re an expert!” he said. The other woman despised him even more than me, and she deigned to give me half a grin. I stayed at that branch all summer, and came to like her very much.
As almost always in government offices, there was hardly any real work to do. We weren’t allowed to read, of course; we had to maintain the fiction that the administration of government requires constant effort. Learning the Displaywriter took up the hours very usefully, but once I’d mastered the system, I still had to look busy. At first I wrote letters; then, running out of real life to tell, I started writing stories to amuse myself. Secretaries were still afraid of word processing in those days (they’d rather deal with the 9 colour-coded mistake-free carbon copies, for instance, required for a Minister’s official correspondence), so I was never out of temp work. Besides, being the master of the machine conveyed a certain prestige.
Yes, I do word processing. I have been processing words, one way or another, ever since. Computers have given me the freedom to write fast and revise relentlessly, the instant view of the printed page for cool assessment, and the capacity to hold a hundred thoughts at once in one’s external head.
More than the blessed facility and freedom, I’m grateful for the epiphany: that I could learn anything I wanted to learn—no need for a course or a teacher. When I later needed to, I learned Quark Xpress and Photoshop and InDesign with no more assistance than the manual and Necessity, the mother of the faked resume. I learned how to write a short story, and a longer story, and then a novel, with no training but the manual (myriad good books)—and I would have failed the qualifying test, if there’d been one.
Since then, whenever someone asks me if I can do something, I say yes. More or less, I can. Or at least, I’ll be able to in a week.