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From Stylus to Cyberspace

By Joe Nigg

I envision the history of the written word in three panels of a cartoon strip:

Panel 1: A bard in an ancient hall is shocked to discover that one of his avid listeners is writing down the words it has taken him an adult lifetime to memorize. “Stop that,” he shouts, pointing to the perpetrator. “You’ll put me out of a job.”

Panel 2: A monk proudly carries a Gutenberg Bible into a medieval scriptorium. All the scribes look up from their illuminations and murmur: “Take that away. You’ll put us all out of a job.”

Panel 3: A techie proudly carries a personal computer into an editorial office where writers are typing away on typewriters. Some of the writers yell, “Take that away. It might make writing easier, but it could kill print and put us out of a job.” Others muse, “Hmm, you might have something there.”

Actually, of course, the communication story is a bit more complicated than that. For example, Homer’s epics, scripture, and other originally oral works survived the transitions to scrolls, manuscripts, and printed books. They returned to the spoken word on audiotapes, have been adapted for stage, screen, and television, and spread onto Websites across the global Internet.

A long-time friend and fellow CAL member once told me he wrote poetry longhand, fiction on a typewriter, and commercial articles on a computer. That was in the early days of computers, so I don’t know if he still does that. But what I do know is that all of us, in one way or another, reiterate the history of writing. The older the writer the more varied and nostalgic his or her transition will have been into the digital age, the second great technological revolution of the written word.

Pencils and Typewriters

“Be a scribe,” wrote an ancient Egyptian writer, because your words will endure long after the mummified bodies of kings decay to dust. All our #2 pencil efforts grew out of scribal traditions of stylus, reed brush, and quill pens. Even though many poets and some writers of both fiction and non-fiction still compose in longhand, we marvel at how stacks of actual manu-script (imagine Moby Dick and multi-volume eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels) were transformed through typesetting into print.

One of my favorite writer photographs is of young Jack London, pencil in hand, writing The Sea-Wolf, outdoors at a makeshift desk on a mossy boulder. London’s later wife, Charmian, did his typing for him. Years earlier, failed typesetter inventor Mark Twain – whose Tom Sawyer had confessed his passion for Becky Thatcher through words on his school slate – had become one of the first writers to experiment with a typewriter. Now, the most famous typed manuscript of all is surely Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot long “scroll” of On the Road, a typewritten version of then yet-to-be-developed word processor files with their virtually unlimited space.

A current Web page tells us that, “The Big Chief tablet was for many years the most popular brand of paper writing tablet among school children and hopeful novelists in the United States and exemplified the line writing tablet as a communications medium.” Like John-Boy of Walton’s Mountain and a host of others, I was one of those “hopeful novelists.” The upper-right corner of the second-grade desk I sat at contained an empty hole for an inkwell (made for right-handers, not for lefties). A standard feature of school desks for decades, the vestiges of inkwells evoked old chauvinist jokes about pigtails. The opening words of my story went something like this: “In 1842, Joe Stream went to Colorado and found a gold mine.” That effort never saw the light of print, but Big Chief was reborn years later as Son of Big Chief, and its Big Indian Chief descendents, still with red covers binding newsprint, are available through the Internet,

My longhand efforts continued with detective and Western stories in high school study halls (with vain hopes of placing them in Ellery Queen and Zane Grey magazines) and articles for the school newspaper. When I started writing weekly sports columns for a neighborhood daily, my mother typed them. The most valuable practical course I took in high school was Typing (I was the only male in the class), and I received a gray Corona portable for graduation. I adapted to working on upright black Remingtons with steel-rimmed keys in the college newspaper office and spent many evenings proofing at the local print shop, which clanked with bars of type dropping down the typesetting machine and was thick with the sweet acrid smell of hot lead and ink. My Corona remained a dear friend through many years of writing fiction and undergraduate and graduate academic papers. When it froze with old age, I reluctantly replaced it with a Royal Standard.

In the Dark Ages preceding computers and copiers, both of my typewriters had what we would now regard as the limitations of their kind. You had to use erasable paper or Wite-out for editing, carbon paper for copies, and when your rejected, crumpled MS came back in the mail, you had to retype the whole damned thing. I once spent an entire day typing up twenty perfect employment queries – only to spill a cup of coffee onto the completed stack.

Nonetheless, years later, I carried the heavy Royal to an editing job every morning, afraid that getting used to the company’s IBM Selectrics would hamper my writing at home. Having been teaching and otherwise working outside journalism for years, I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t only typewriters that had changed. Computers had replaced typesetting equipment and we prepared pages on paste-up boards rather than only on layout sheets. In those days before desktop publishing, blocks of text would occasionally drop off the boards en route to the printer, unbeknownst to us editors until we gasped at the printed proofs. I adapted to the electric IBM – with its ease of typing and its wonderful correction tape – and eventually bought a used one for writing at home. The Royal went into storage.

Into Cyberspace

I’mcertainly not the only writer for whom the transition to writing on a computer was slow and painful – but the change was necessary to keep a day job and then to write at home. The emptiness I felt when I lost the very first piece I wrote on my home computer is still excruciatingly vivid. (But I immediately rewrote the chapter by memory, losing only what I was convinced was the best line, and it was eventually published in a new fantasy magazine.) Even now I swear loudly every time my program won’t allow me to do what I want to do, or when the unit suddenly thinks for itself. I was enraged at the little legged computer icon telling me what to do, or a voice from within the infernal machine saying, “It’s not my fault.” Yes it is, you *#!*#! And for writers, the most perverse screen saver a sadistic programmer ever came up with is one’s words slowly melting down the screen like icicles.

But like most other writers, I cannot live without the editing and storage capabilities of word-processing programs or the revolutionary communication capabilities and research resources of the Internet.

File editing – with the global replace function and all the rest – was a welcome new world to me.But I could not have anticipated the experience I had years later, on my second home computer. While compiling an anthology of writings from ancient times to the present, I felt a powerful affinity with earlier writers when – with only the touch of a key! – I copied to a new file a collection of bestiary writings it had taken medieval monks long days to transcribe.

Then there is the Internet miracle. An electronic Library of Alexandria sits on our desks. And it contains so many times more than either the renowned ancient library destroyed by fire or its modern reincarnation. Ours is exploited, of course, by child pornographers, terrorists, and other criminals, and much of the writing of bloggers (everyone is now his or her own publisher) debases our language. But all that is inevitable with this advanced technology and is the price we pay for the virtually infinite wealth of verbal and visual material – much of which we already take for granted. As far as writers are concerned, there’s a new world of content and marketing opportunities here.

Among all the riches of this vast Internet Library, it’s appropriate that none is greater than the fingertip accessibility of literature and art from ancient times to the present. Search engines have led me to a treasure-trove of digital medieval bestiaries and Renaissance emblem books, printers’ marks, and alchemy texts – manuscripts and rare books it would take a researcher years and a small fortune to track down and study in international libraries. The magnificent Aberdeen Bestiary site ( is a case in point. Because that illuminated manuscript is not reproduced in print, the only way to see it page by page, in brilliant color, is either to examine it in person or to view it on the Internet – and then, if one wishes, print out the pages for personal files.

I receive writing and speaking opportunities and fan mail through my Website. By e-mail, I correspond internationally, not only with editors and publishers but also with professors and other authorities I discover through online research. The Internet enables a writer to produce a book with a national or foreign publisher more efficiently and quickly than we could have foreseen years ago. My latest two books were completed via cyberspace. I submitted them electronically, exchanged edited versions with the London publisher, and received and commented on commissioned illustrations, from preliminary sketches to full-color renderings.

Nonetheless, when I recently pulled my old IBM Selectric from under a couch up in my library and typed a few address labels (I haven’t yet bothered to master that feature on the computer), the clickety-clack of the keys was music to my nostalgic writer’s ears.

Ever since Gutenberg, writers have dreamed of having their own printed books on their own bookshelves. But where will the cyberspace revolution lead? Will insubstantial images of light that appear on the screen (and disappear when the unit is turned off) replace books altogether? I, probably like you, can’t envision that, but it’s definitely a question for writers to explore – in print essays and on Websites like this one.

In any case, scribe/writers will never be out of a job.


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