Kicking and screaming all the way

It has always been impossible for me to think about my favorite writers without imagining them hunched over manuscripts, their brains filled with plots, characters, and climaxes, as words, words, words flowed smoothly from the tips of their fingers to the tips of their pens.

I know that John Steinbeck did much of his writing on a yellow lined notepad with a pencil and eraser; that Charlotte Bronte wrote with a pencil in cramped, tiny handwriting on loose scraps of paper; and that Charles Dickens wrote with a “continuous provision” of ink and quill pens.

When I look back at my own early work, though, I have absolutely memory of how it came about. Manuscripts in my files indicate that I wrote my first drafts with a pencil or ballpoint pen and then typed them on plain white paper using a typewriter – but it must have been a typewriter that I didn’t own.

I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was seventeen years old. Way back then, I idolized all writers, and I loved to read about them on the jacket flaps of their books.

What exciting lives they led!

O. Henry had been a draftsman, a bank teller, a cowboy, and an ex-con. Zane Gray was a baseball player, a world traveler, and fisherman. Ernest K. Gann worked as a fighter pilot, a film producer, a barnstormer, a rancher, and a sailor. Mary Higgins Clark was a stewardess, a copy editor, and a writer of radio scripts.



Me, though?

I was only a secretary. I took dictation, yes. And I was probably the worst stenographer in the history of the scribbled word. I typed, too. But at that, I excelled. I was the fastest typist in the world.

My first experiences of typewriters were with clunky gray monster machines at the Moser Secretarial School. It was on one of those that I plunked “Dear Mr. Smith. We are in receipt of your order…” over and over and over, until my brain was numbed with boredom and my fingers were just plain numb. Although I did not leave secretarial school with a diploma – a failing I repeated often at colleges over the years – I had learned a trade.

My first job in New York City was as typist for a book club. My next was as typist for a famous novelist. After that, I became typist for a professor of biology, a motorcycle dealership, a television commercial producer, a management consultant, a graphic arts company, an advertising agency, and a public relations firm.

I was not, however, in possession of my very own typewriter until a friend of mine’s father, who’d heard about my ambitions to write, had a mysterious box delivered directly to the door of my walkup apartment on East 90th Street. It was a brand new, never before operated, IBM Selectric I. It weighed 30 pounds, came with two shiny silver golf ball-sized typing elements (gothic and script), and was – delight piled upon delight – Bright Red.

The first time in my life that I ever really, truly fell in love was with that IBM Selectric Typewriter.

Men sometimes speak of their first cars the way I felt about that machine. It was strong. It was virile. It never broke. It never hesitated. It never failed me. It never faltered. It was and remains to this day, the Pierce Arrow…the Rolls Royce…the Duesenberg of all typing machines, and it was on that IBM Selectric that I evolved from a girl who wanted to become a writer to a woman who clutched in her hand a check from her literary agent in payments for the rights to her first novel.

By the time my next two books came along, I was in agony.

The world had moved away, not only from my dream machine, but from all typewriters, including the IBM Wheel Writer word processing typewriter that I bought to keep up with the times. Even that did not satisfy my editors, though, because the floppy disk could only be re-formatted to fit a computer after great effort and many complaints from my publisher’s technical staff.

And so, kicking and screaming all the way, I made the switch. I typed my last four … five … six books onto a computer, making editorial changes directly on the monitor, saving them to my hard drive, and transmitting them with the click of a key to my editors in San Diego, Manhattan, or wherever they may be.

However …

I do not (let me look this up in my Thesaurus) “compose, conceive, construct or concoct” any books on a computer. Nope. Not one. Type and edit? Yes. Create? No.

Ah … but my IBM Selectric? It responded joyfully to the ebb and flow of my ideas. The touch of its keys was perfection. Each letter leaped to the page, eager to form the next word. If it had been a dog, it would have been Lassie. If a horse, Trigger. It existed solely to serve me.

It had a soul.

Computers? I defy anyone to develop a spiritual kinship with one of those ever-evolving, infinitely replaceable (about 130,000 of them are thrown away each day) cookie-cutter machines.

And so, I write my original manuscripts in script and by hand. Like my literary heroes, John Steinbeck, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens, my thoughts move from my brain, down my arm, through my fingertips to my pencil or pen.

My first preference would have been my bright red old IBM Selectric. But if I can’t have what I want, the old-fashioned way will have to do.

Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is a writer, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com

Copyright © 2010, Shelly Reuben

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