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A week ago digging in storage I came on a box marked OLD MS. I had to look inside, and sure enough the box, once holding reams of wrapped typing paper, was full of typed sheets where the word OLD clearly applied. Going through the stapled and paper clipped contents I saw the oldest were on watermarked sheets that had suffered banging by the used Smith Corona portable that saw me through University days. It seems strange to recall the old time necessity to get the very most from a typewriter ribbon by never buying the fancy red/black ink ribbons in favor of plain black that could be flipped over and reversed in order to get as much use as possible. On their last gasps a ribbon barely gave the ghost of a letter. I milked my ribbons to Casper letter quality as much to save money as avoid the mess of (at least the way I did it) having several days of ink black fingers.
I could also identify my oldest work because if you didn’t hit the key especially hard and keep an eye on it the letter e would skip. That problem resulted in a paper titled T xt Analysis of th Tal of Two Citi s. My first attempts at writing for publication were aided by that old portable, but as it wore out typing became both more labored and error filled. I had to make the big move to an Olivetti electric. I was the sort of student who made a typing instructor think and often as not say “Oh what’s the use?” A decent typing student was able to do sixty words a minute. My abilities ran more to keeping my score to fewer than thirty errors per minute. I was not a natural as a typist. Add to my inability the ability of the Olivetti to respond to the lightest touch and provide a whole new scope for errors. It didn’t take much to transform red into redd; my typical errors multiplied by lots of double strikes. Errors aside, speediness with the electric portable allowed me to get a piece done more quickly.
Some people have an eye or gift for spotting typos. Not me. Knowing the word I intended to produce means I see “assistance” when the typing clearly states “assisrance.” Eventually I might pick out that form of error, but that might not be until days later when a different mindset allows me to read minus the compositional frame of mind needed when writing. When the sequence and connections between words is my focus I don’t see spelling and will be totally unaware of just having read than as then. See how easily that’s done.
Mucking through boxes I came on more filled with regular (no water mark) typing paper bearing signs of having experienced the high speed imprint of an IBM Selectric. At the time the Selectric ball system was fast and accurate while giving the opportunity to change type style and size in two shakes. Being a high speed machine the IBM allowed me to maintain an admirable level of typos. But how wonderful it was that the IBM also included an un-doer feature that allowed the error prone to go back to pull hlamk from a page and replace it with flank. When completed my pages tended to appear as topographic maps bearing word islands with indistinct or indefinite coastlines, but this semi architectural writing form was easier and faster than my earlier production of pages weighted down with an eighth pound of whiteout. I considered buying stock but could never decide between investing in shares of liquid paper or stock ownership of the white film variety. The white film was far and away neater but required the “extra” step of repeating the error to blot it out with white film before inserting the correct letter in its place. But of course these problems and products are largely gone. The last time I used any liquid paper was to make a white field that would dry to become the base of India inked numbers of an artifact.
In addition to identifying manuscript age by the machinery used to produce it I started to feel somewhat amazed by all the efforts and trials that had formed the core of earlier writing efforts. I’ll be honest. I’d completely forgotten how many magazines I’d once contacted trying to sell short pieces. There were also submissions to a variety of governmental and other groups. None of had much result other than as practice, though it was oddly satisfying to find one organization had (with minor changes) plagiarized my work. I wasn’t good enough to pay but fine enough to steal from. That’s something, and in fact I found it somewhat flattering.
As I found boxes of stored writing the stack grew as one closet or another gave up its dead. I did not give most of it more than a passing nod. But as the buildup crested above four feet I began to wonder where in hell I’d found that much energy. There was a lot of prose piled up there. Had I been a visual artist, even a quite poor one, I’d have been able to walk into any number of bars or festivals and been able to pedal my visual interpretation of a northern pike. But when your output is fourteen pages of short story nobody bought the result of the effort is the same number of pages of scrap paper. It’s a bit deflating, really, but if a person did not need to do this it would be tragic rather than thought provoking. For instance, atop the accumulation is a less than foot tall stack of poetry, most done in the first two to four decades when the fires of literary compulsion burned with the blue flame of the sacred muse altar where the writer can worship and give thanks and possibly receive but can never demand. It is the muse who makes demands. These are the only answer one ever gets or will ever need.