A writer’s progress, in 3 machines

1: the mould green typewriter.

 

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At first it was all pencil, fountain pen, biro and felt tip, until a mould green typewriter changed my life. It had belonged to my Canadian great-aunt and somehow found itself at our house in London. Plonking, one finger at time, I transferred my secretly pencilled hoard of teenage poems into typescript.

Their newfound legibility in the typewriter’s font changed everything. The poems could be held up to the light, instead of skulking in the shadow world of out-of-date diaries I wrote them in. Typed, they suddenly belonged to the wider world. The quirks of my handwriting became irrelevant. My choice of words was the only thing that would make them different from any other page of typescript. It revealed things too. Lines of poetry that were the same length in my handwriting proved annoyingly ragged in typescript.

The percussive snap of the keys on the roller also meant I could no longer hide the fact I was writing. Sometimes I had to explain myself. Part of becoming a writer was that other people had to accommodate the fact that I typed at strange times in the night, or first thing in the morning.

Curiously, at university I never used my typewriter for essays, but reserved my gastropod typing almost exclusively for poems. The lumbering thunk of words accreting letter by letter was far slower than the speed of thought. But I think this laborious process made me notice how some words sparked like flints together, while others lay inert.

I felt bizarrely self-conscious when my first poems were published. The realisation that a few people might actually read what I’d written on my typewriter, stopped me writing for two months. This probably sound quaint. But this was before the internet, where we can tweet the world in seconds. Being published seemed an enormous step.

2: the stepdad’s Amstrad

amstradpcw

The next upheaval to the means of production (in my twenties I was a Marxist) was the arrival of the Amstrad PCW in my mother’s house, one of the bourgeois fruits of my American stepdad’s capitalism.

The revelation of word processing is impossible to overemphasise. In my lifetime it has been the single greatest invention for the writer. There I was using a LocoScript word processor and realising the inexpressible joy of being able type something, then edit it before printing. Although my three-fingered typing technique had speeded up a bit by then, having to retype an entire page because of a mistake was routine. Now the fix took a few seconds. For a writer it was liberating. For a start it did away for daubing Tippex onto your typescript when you mistyped. Change something, and press print and there it was (albeit in a weird and dotty font) right away.

Moreover I had my first glimpse of how a computer could be useful for other things. I got a teach yourself to type program for the Amstrad. Within a week, not only could I type without looking but I had already tripled my typing speed.

Life after the Amstrad was never the same again, and computers very quickly became ubiquitous in the workplace. I found myself working with computer companies too, a seven-year spell at IBM and then working with Dell as a major client. But my chief tool has always been the word processor.

3. my new iMac

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What prompted this post was the purchase of an iMac. My trusty old PC was having dark thoughts and absences so had to go. But my iMac is generous where you want it to be, i.e. the screen, and sleek and petite everywhere else. It is a beautiful object, and the first desktop computer I’ve owned that I admire aesthetically. But the most important job of my  computer is its ability to word process.

Secondly the ability to research things on the internet has revolutionised the process of writing since the Amstrad days. I am of a generation who remembers having to trudge off to the local library to look up facts if you didn’t happen to have the right book on your bookcase.

Naturally blogging, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have transformed the whole environment for writers. Anyone can post about a plate of rocket salad and it instantly reaches 300 of their closest mates. Dispiritingly, I wonder how this compares to the number of people who read a poem that has taken months to write when it appears in a magazine or online.

This compter (and all those other platforms of phone, laptops, tablets and so on) has changed the world in which writers live. Instead of a solitary weirdo in a shared student house typing poems at three o’clock in the morning, the world is full of people with screen glow faces typing endlessly, updating statuses, communicating things about themselves, making connections, learning and uploading all kinds of content. It is incredibly exciting, and democratic.

But if I’m honest, I have a tinge of regret too. When I typed on my mould green typewriter, I felt it was a sort of special calling. Now living as a citizen of the information age, it is impossible to escape the fact that I am one voice among billions. This certainly quashes delusions of grandeur, and is as it should be. But, just once in a while, I miss those times before the bubble was pricked.

About Peter Kenny

I lead a double life. Identity #1. A writer of poems, plays, libretti, prose, journalism and so on. Identity #2: A marketing outlier, working with London creative agencies and my own clients as a copywriter and creative consultant.
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4 Responses to A writer’s progress, in 3 machines

  1. I don’t know how many times I used to retype articles when I made a mistake. Thank heaven those days are gone! I, too, graduated from a typewriter to a clunky computer and now have a shiny iMac which I practically worship. I write less and less these days and I think it’s partly because I feel how tiny my voice is in the wilderness of the world beyond the keyboard. However, I do write poems for local artists, sometimes about their work, sometimes about the stories behind their work. I’ve learned much in the process and made some great friends. Keeping my writing world smaller and closer to home has helped me to retain that “special calling” feeling.

    • Peter Kenny says:

      Thanks Lesley — I agree about keeping your world smaller. It is kind of a Buddhist thought for me, something about concentrating on the job at hand to the best of your abilities, and not being attached to outcomes over which you have little or no influence. Ultimately I think the benefit of writing is that it makes me notice the world more, and enriches my life. It’s also given me a living of course, but the poet in me, such as it is, is the thing that notices the world. Love that you worship your iMac too. Weird isn’t it? 🙂

  2. robert okaji says:

    I remember those days of typing book and article manuscripts (other people’s) on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Egads!

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