Archive for November, 2013

A WRITER’S TOOLS–A PERSONAL HISTORY


From time to time I’ll be sharing both news and my personal perspectives as a writer through this section of my website. Read on for my first musings.

Full Disclosure: At the time of this update, I do not own either a tablet or a smartphone (yet.)

During my college writing jobs and as a Washington Post reporter, my words flowed from what we’d probably call now a “traditional” typewriter, whose clacking keys  confirmed that some type of progress was being made on the current work.

At The Washington Post, in those days our words emerged on “copy sets,” clunky 6-page packets of paper. The copies, which surfaced more and more faintly as the pages got closer to the bottom, were distributed to various editors and desks for reading and editing.

I wrote my first book, “How to Plan a Successful Trip,” in the 15th Century house I was renting on a Spanish island, on what seemed at the time to be a stunning technological advance–a small, portable Brother electronic typewriter that allowed the fingers to swoop across the keys and did not require the precisely targeted pounding of the keys on an old-style machine.  Using the electronic portable, in those days I was still writing on paper, each one a shiny, flimsy single leaf rolling gently out of the carriage.

The articles I wrote had to be sent snail mail to the magazines and newspapers publishing them. To provide accompanying photographs –a “must” to go with my travel articles–I had to convert them into slides, file them in plastic sheets, and label them and, along with cardboard protectors, stuff them into manila envelopes and hope that they would arrive undamaged.

The leap from using the electronic typewriter to a computer occurred when National Journal, a Washington-based policy and politics magazine, offered me a slot as a contributing editor. In addition to providing a professional workspace with colleagues and other resources, this position gave me the opportunity to learn to use a desk-top computer in an office where there were techies to help me learn and to survive the inevitable crises that would occur close to deadline time.

In the early 1990’s, another  new world of writing tools opened up for me when I saw my first demonstration of the WorldWideWeb.  Strangely, this demonstration occurred in a barn belonging to some forward-thinking friends in the outskirts of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I and my partner Riccardo Accurso had moved from Washington, D.C.  to Shepherdstown in search of a “kinder, gentler” lifestyle that was within commuting distance.

Soon after that early glimpse of the Web, I was clacking away on my own machine, working in an upstairs office overlooking a calming green patio, in an 18th Century historic building in downtown Shepherdstown. Then came difficult times, for a non-techie,  years adjusting to concepts of  MS-Dos, WordStar, Word Perfect, computer discs, hard drives, laptops, netbooks, pen drives, external hard drives and all the other paraphernalia that has come along with the opportunity to speed our writing and send it flinging around the world, all in a few instants.

For a writer whose forte is not technology, the computer has been a mixed blessing. I work on three different machines, a desktop in my home in the U.S., a laptop in my home in Argentina, and a netbook that allows me to do some writing as well as check my e-mail almost anywhere in the world.  Keeping all the files current and in harmonious form –to say nothing of dealing with viruses and other causes of breakdowns–has become a major time-eater.

When cell phones first came out, I wrote an article for Psychology Today magazine in which I interviewed psychologists about the potential impacts of the new technology on individuals’ mental health. Would bosses insist on constant contact with their employees? Would employees become overly stressed, knowing that they could almost never get away from the demands of their employers?

The experts’ answer was that most of us would simply react according to our already-established psychological make-up. If we were the type to get stressed easily, chances are a cell phone would make our lives more stressful. But for the equilibrated individual, with a strong sense of personal identity and priorities, they said, the cell phone would probably not add to stress.

So do I regret the evolution of the writer’s primary tool? Of course not. Any change requires adjustment, whether it’s physical or psychological. You don’t need me to tell you all the advantages that the computer and the Worldwide Web have brought to writers.

But I will tell you one that has been crucial for me:  This technology has allowed me to live a lifestyle that would have been, at a minimum, much more inconvenient and, at its worst, impossible–as a writer who can do my chosen work efficiently from anywhere in the world.