Tuesday, August 31, 2010

From ADAM to AirBook

My wife, who is deep into a profound reworking of one of her latest projects (turning a prose novel into verse -- definitely NOT a simple task, nor one to be undertaken by the faint-hearted), has written some recent posts on her blog in which she speaks compellingly of the vicissitudes of revisions. In the comments section of one of these posts, she wrote "I love computers so much."

Now, Jeannine is far from being a technophile, so without the concept of revision -- and its attendant difficulties -- informing that comment, these words might sound a little odd coming from her. But having watched her process for a long time, I think I know exactly what she is saying.

When we first got together, back in 1982, Jeannine was doing much of her writing in longhand (writing on paper) and then, via her electric typewriter, transforming that into a manuscript suitable for submission. Much of her revision process happened before the typing began -- I would often see her at the table surrounded by many bits and pieces of paper, small (but carefully torn) shreds of what she had written down in longhand, paper-clipped together and arranged somewhat differently than they had been when on the full sheets of paper.

Then she would turn these into a typed manuscript, and as even the best typists know, occasionally, mistakes happen. Back in those pre-computer days, if you were trying to produce a clean-looking page, making a typographical or spelling error meant breaking out the correction tape or the white-out fluid. The correction tape, being dry, was somewhat faster than the white-out, which was literally painted over the error.

But the biggest problem was that once you had finished carefully typing your manuscript, you were faced with a daunting task if -- as is very often the way with writers -- you looked at it and saw the need for further revisions. In that case, you basically started all over again, with clean paper, from the very first word. It was virtually impossible to change a few paragraphs, even a few lines, in the middle of a manuscript without re-typing the whole thing.

That's why, when we lived in Dover in those early days, it was such a revelation to use a computer -- in this case, a somewhat primitive by today's standards (but very high-tech then) computer called a Northstar, if memory serves. I'd been going to the local Dover public library and discovered that they had installed one of these gizmos for use by anyone who was interested. Their setup included a printer, one of those dot matrix things which were fast and efficient but produced printouts of dubious quality -- certainly not the kind of quality required for the submission of a manuscript for possible publication.

But I saw right away that this piece of technology held great promise for the future of Jeannine's revising process. "Cut and paste", a feature of pretty much every program these days, was then something that seemed kind of magical -- the ability to select a section of what you had typed, and with a couple of commands (keyboard commands in those days -- the whole mouse and "graphic user interface" thing later popularized by Apple and others had not yet emerged) you could delete or move that block of text into any other location in your document, and it would be a seamless whole when read on the screen or printed. To me, who had seen Jeannine grinding her teeth in frustration when dealing with the wearying grunt work of retyping a manuscript (all the while having to keep a watchful eye and hand to prevent mistakes), this was simply amazing. (And it was clear that the way this thing worked, the tyranny of white-out fluid and correction tape would very likely soon come to an end… which it did.)

I did a bunch of my own stuff on that computer, typing letters to family and friends (and finding great use for that cut and paste function -- I could write a basic letter and then customize it with small additions and/or subtractions to make it appropriate to the person to whom it was to be sent), and when I felt comfortable enough with how that computer worked, I showed it to Jeannine. And though she hated the dull, slightly smudgy look of the dot matrix printouts, she immediately saw what I had seen vis a vis the potential for completely altering the oft-times onerous process of revision and preparation of manuscripts.

But the dot matrix thing was a problem. At that time, letter-quality printers were thin on the ground and cost an arm and a leg to boot, and we had very little money.

And then, a now-defunct video game company came to the rescue.

I am sure many (or at least some) of you remember the ColecoVision video game system. This was one of the earliest home video game consoles, and it was quite successful. Someone at the Coleco company saw the potential for this game system as the basis for an actual home computer (at that time a rarity), and Coleco produced something they called the "ADAM" computer. It was basically the ColecoVision system with a few more bells and whistles, including a built-in word processor and BASIC programming software, and a cassette tape drive for storing and retrieving files. Like the ColecoVision it was based on, the system had no dedicated monitor -- you had to have a television to connect it to, preferably a color set.

But one of the best things -- in fact, the thing that finally got us to plunk down about $400 of our (mostly Jeannine's) meager savings at the time -- was the fact that this system included a letter-quality daisy wheel printer. This was an absolute necessity for Jeannine if she wanted to use the printed documents prepared on this computer to send out for consideration for publication. And for the money, it seemed to be an incredible deal.

So off we went to the local mall -- I'm pretty sure it was the Newington Mall near Portsmouth, NH -- and the Mongomery Wards store (which I am pretty sure was in the space now occupied by a Barnes and Noble). We'd seen in a circular in the local paper, "Foster's Daily Democrat", that Wards was selling this new computer system, and as I recall it didn't take us too long to come to the conclusion that although this was a lot of money for us to be spending on this hunk of (at that point) unproven technology, there was enough promise in it that it seemed irresistible.

And it proved to be pretty much everything we'd hoped. It was an easy system to use, and the word processor, while basic, did everything we needed. I did play the included games a few times, and while we lived in Connecticut and Jeannine was teaching high school English, I used the BASIC programming functions to write a little program for her which calculated her students' grades (my only worthwhile programming effort ever, I think), but it was definitely the word processor that got the most use.

When it came time to render the stories Jeannine wrote on the ADAM into printed form, the ADAM's daisy wheel printer did the job, and did it with great quality and pretty decent speed…

… and a HECK of a lot of noise! That thing was SO noisy -- it sounded like a machine gun. I built an enclosure for it out of foam core board, and that helped some, but I can guarantee you couldn't sleep if this thing was printing in the next room. (Well, I know that we couldn't, anyway.)

As the years went by, other computers came into our lives -- first the Atari ST line, and then an even longer line of Apple products, starting with some of their beige desktop Macintoshes and culminating in what we use now -- in my case, the MacBook Pro on which I am typing this, and across the table from me, the sleek MacBook Air that Jeannine uses. These two machines are computers that are FAR beyond the capabilities and form factor of that original ADAM… but that machine served its purpose, and served it well. Jeannine got comfortable pretty quickly with the way computers do things, and has never looked back. I think she still has an old electric typewriter in her writing room, but I don't think it has been used in years.

And now she does almost all of her writing, composing and revising, directly on the MacBook Air. Yes, she occasionally will write something down on paper -- an idea, a line or two -- but for the most part, her creative thoughts are going directly into (well, through her fingertips) the computer. I can't remember when the last time was that I saw her at the kitchen table surround by torn scraps of paper. I kind of miss seeing that.

But I don't think she does. -- PL


Mayhem said...

Wow... at least I know now that someone got something out of the ADAM and the printer with it heh. But an equal story with me, before getting a PC I used my C64, word processor and a daisy wheel printer for outputting reports for school and my freelance reviews that I then (wait, old school coming up again!) faxed into the publisher. How times change over the course of the last 20 years...

From Mary's Pen said...

Aww lol

It's funny how we evolve as writers. I used to write everything out long hand too.

An ADAM... wow. We had a Tandy 8000 from Radio Shack, and thought it was the coolest thing EVER. I remember the cassette tapes... now my kids don't even know what they are. And pull out an 8-track! HA their eyes go big and they ask what kind of computer used THAT disc!

I hardly ever write long hand now, except for journaling. I don't quite trust my computer with the inane thoughts of my "diary" yet. For everything else... I find I can type far faster than I can write, so it only makes sense to use the laptop.

Too bad someone hasn't come up with a truly user-friendly program for artists... I know there are palettes and paintshop and all that sort of nonsense, but I have yet to find a program that you don't need an engineering degree to learn to use. :-p

Ah well, the world is not missing much by being deprived my pitiful art skills. lol

Take care.

Rejoicing in the day,