My Writing Life: From Big Chief to Computer

I’m old enough to remember the days before computers. Anything I wrote was by hand. Nowadays the only time I ever pick up a pen is to add something to the grocery list. I’m guess I’m old school that way.

My writing life started with a little five year diary with a lock and two keys I got for Christmas one year. Each January 1st, while watching the Macy’s Day Parade on TV, I’d record the time and temperature and a New Year’s Resolution. The rest of the pages may have been sparsely written on, but January 1st had an entry for all five years in a row. The little five year diary had entries such as “Played Monopoly with Cindy and WON!!!!!” (I always had to win), or “Sick. Stayed home from school. YEAH!!!!!” Life was pretty simple back then.

When I got a little older I upgraded to a Big Chief tablet. On trips to visit my grandparents in Oklahoma, my Big Chief was always waiting for me. I know you could buy them anywhere, but Oklahomans are especially proud of their Indian heritage. I never took it home with me back to Texas–it would have seemed out of place. My grandmother always kept it on the top of the shelf in her kitchen. I loved spending hours rereading plays, poems, and silly things I’d written from past trips. I would sit on the front porch in the big wooden rocking chair, look up at the huge tree that dropped leaves shaped like helicopter wings, and write informational plays about saving the environment.Yes, I was granola even then.

I ran across the Walton’s Thanksgiving special on TV over the holidays, and of course John Boy, ever the diarist, was writing it all down in a Big Chief tablet. No wonder I always had the biggest crush on him . . .

And I always wondered what happened to my Big Chief tablet.

When I got to be a teenager I kept writing, but I moved on to spiral notebooks. They were certainly cooler than the five year diary. I had volumes and volumes of spirals. Each page was covered in frantic writing, front and back. When it was full, nothing was better than picking out a new spiral at Skillerns. The color had to be just right, and the paper and lines had to be worthy of being written on. Yes, I was a big dork. Life was tough for a skinny, uncool, late blooming, Save the Whales and Earth Shoes kind of girl, even in the late 70’s.

After I graduated from high school I spent one lonely Saturday night rereading them all. I was disgusted and aghast at the realization that I had wasted that much energy anguishing over boys and the unfairness of life. I promptly drove to a dumpster at the apartment complex nearest to my house and threw them all in. Every single one. I’ve never regretted it. It was like hitting the reset button.

Somehow I made it through college as an English major with only an IBM Selectric typewriter. Every revised paper I wrote had to be retyped, page after page–and I revise a lot when I write. Typos meant sticking a little tab of white correction paper over the mistake, hoping it would cover it up, and hoping your fingers wouldn’t slip off the keys. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when they invented a self-correcting typing ribbon, but you could still see the mistake.

After a year of college, I worked as a secretary in Switzerland for a company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants. After all those years of being a closet hippie, and after Three Mile Island, I had an unsettling feeling I was working for the enemy. They needed my English and my typing skills, though, and it had great benefits. Also, I got to work on both a telex machine and a real computer, an IBM Office System 6.

The telex was terrifying. The keys had huge spaces between them and my fingers were always slipping off the keys. Every letter you typed made little holes on a long piece of tape, so if you made a mistake you had to start all over again. Horrors. After you finished you took the tape to a room filled with women who fed the tape into machines that sent the encoded message somewhere else. The machines were loud and obnoxious.

The IBM OS-6 was a behemoth. It had its very own room. Everything was saved on huge floppy disks that were labeled and cataloged. We even had some type of ancient transfer system between my computer and the one in the New Jersey office. I would pull up the written proposal on my computer, call the States late in the afternoon, hit a button, and three times out of 10 it would be received on the New Jersey OS-6. At least parts of it would be received. Sometimes.

We’ve come a long way. I can’t imagine going back to the days of writing twenty page English papers without a memory mechanism. Writing is so much easier with memory. And I’ve always had the worst handwriting.

As much as I loved my Big Chief, I love my computer way more.

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2 comments

  1. Nick

    “I promptly drove to a dumpster at the apartment complex nearest to my house and threw them all in. Every single one. I’ve never regretted it. It was like hitting the reset button.”

    That’s impressive! Throwing things away and starting from scratch has always been hard for me. The first diaries I kept were in spiral notebooks my mom bought for me. By middle school I was typing them in Wordperfect and saving them in a file I called essays.wpd. I saved a copy on the hard drive and a backup on one of those big floppies you have pictured in your post. The document had run to several hundred pages by the time I started a fresh one (in high school). I still have the original, converted to a word file.

    Eventually, in college, I returned to writing most journal entries by hand in a Moleskine notebook. Doing so makes me feel more writerly and also frees me up to think more non-linearly, scribbling ideas all over the page. Transferring from notebook to computer also serves as a great opportunity to revise.

    My dad still tells stories about using punch cards to write code. How times change!

  2. Mind Margins

    I love new beginnings and had no problem throwing out all those old spirals. New Year’s is one of my favorite holidays, and I always look forward to the chance to start over again.

    I love how you typed your journals in Wordperfect and backed them up on the floppies. I used to love Wordperfect. I switched over to the computer as soon as I could. I have terrible handwriting, but I’m a fast typist, so it’s much easier. I would like to keep a journal, but I’m not very good about keeping up with it. My daughter calls my blog my “public diary” anyway, and she’s probably right!

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