HERE I SIT, $2.98 Sheaffer pen in hand, etching into paper my unfashionable thoughts about $5,000 worth of word processing equipment. I purchased the technology of my preference at my local stationer, even though James Fallows in The Atlantic and other more worldly processors of words urged me to greater expense. I also set myself back $.98 for six Skrip ink cartridges. As I write this piece I am wondering if I will exhaust an entire cartridge in the process. Composition is such an unpredictable activity, properly pursued, and I am out of sync, anachronistic, a card-carrying miser.
Writing is a competitive business, or at least one often has that impression. In contests the edge goes to the best equipped, other things being equal. Knowing this, I decide that a competitor who has done as much writing with a $2.98 Sheaffer pen as I have, had better periodically review the technical state of his art to determine if he dare work with the old loved affordable tools. Or must he, against all of the heart's leaning, retire the familiar implements of his craft and take up the cunning instruments of an anxious age, interfacing with the apparently indispensable. Not back to basics, but forward into BASIC.
Pen in hand I set these thoughts down between the lines of my narrow yellow tablet. I squint against the sun which I have chosen to be out in. I am in my back yard at my warped Ward's picnic table pressing my old hand- fitting hardware and consulting my old wrinkled software.
I jot down these painful thoughts, using what I call the cursive program of my $2.98 technology. Then I glance over at my hip-high, deep-green tomato plants loosely rag-tied to beat-up fence pickets (I saved $10 a piece there over these newfangled metal trellises). Then I squint down at my narrow yellow tablet, kind of nervous-like, wondering what the competition's accomplished while I was daydreaming. I know what they're up to. Fallows told me all about it in the July Atlantic.
While I'm out here forming each and every letter with my cartridge Sheaffer some sharpy beyond my fence, right here in Bethesda probably, is flooding the agents and editors with daisy-wheel typed manuscripts knocked out by his electronic printer at 30 characters a second. Some other hotshot is gazing raptly at his tinted monitor with a unique angle-to-the-horizon and punching first draft into his Xerox 820 like a $500-a-week executive secretary. Meanwhile I'm still staked out here beside the tomatoes working the old cursive program on my fifth paragraph. My word processing adversary has composed, thrice edited, inserted paragraphs, moved them all about like Scrabble letters, printed out the article, stored it on his floppy disk, shipped it off special delivery, and is apparently amusing himself making up color-coded bar graphs of his fat family budget. Or at least this is the impression Fallows manages to convey.
My tomatoes grow slowly. When I mow the lawn I shake the grass out around the plants' roots to keep down the weeds. Makes good mulch, grass does. Good old Jim Crockett makes a point of that. Sometimes I write at a gardener's pace, but when I read about some guy that pulls up a chair to $4,995 worth of Victor 9000 with a 128 K memory and 1.2 megabytes of storage, it makes me fret. I'll tell you, that Victor 9000 starts to sound like the difference between an article and an oeuvre.
I write this observation out longhand! With my Sheaffer cartridge. Sometimes it seems to me modern writing's lost something for all the speed it's gained. Maybe what we're missing is just penmanship, the innocuous thing that turned out to have been indispensable. Maybe that's really what's gone wrong with the whole modern world. The penmanship went to hell. I look down at my tablet at what my brain has just perpetrated. What an asinine thought. As usual my thinking runs contrary to the thinking of the "authorities." This is even a notion I have about thinking. That it's somehow inimical to the nature of those assigned to do it, and that advertising only simulates it. But I digress.
Using my scribble-scribble program, I cross out the previous paragraph, drawing thick black lines through it. Then regret the act. Then decide to make the final decision later, in the fullness of time, as it were. "Ripeness is all," and all that.
Meanwhile Fallows is sneering in his article at the fellows who buy dot matrix printers for their word processors, trying to have careers on the cheap, the penny- pinching ne'er-do-wells. Hardly worth playing the game if you can't afford an Apple or Zenith, a Victor or Vector, a Digital or Wang, a Superbrain or Radio Shack, an Atari or a North Star, "to name just a few," Fallows writes. Used to be "a few" was three, maybe four at the outside.
I jot this notion down on the yellow tablet at the warped Ward's picnic table with my $2.98 Sheaffer. By the way, I highly recommend the Sheaffer Skrip cartridge, which fits all Sheaffer fountain pens, has a large, long-lasting ink capacity, and is available in seven smooth-flowing colors, including emerald green and peacock blue. At $.16 it makes a good investment and is tax deductible, amortized properly. My own jet black's flowing smoothly and I may complete this piece without changing the cartridge now in the pen. This affords me the grim little satisfaction of Silas Marner in a supply- side economy.
Reading on in Fallows' article I am hit by Sidewinder spasms of neurotic anxiety. Surely those guys on the best-seller lists are not fools. They are serious, driven writers who demand the best, from themselves and from their equipment. They would not be such creatures of advertising, adrift in storm-tossed seas of Hype, as to lay out four to six thousand dollars unnecessarily when a $2.98 cartridge Sheaffer was sufficient. It is sheer hubris on my part to think them wrong, victims of Future Shock, taken in by the great high-tech con. To think such a thing would be to go contrary to all of the advertising, disguised and undisguised, in every major American magazine.
True enough, Tom Wicker wrote his famous Kennedy assassination story in the Dallas airport mezzanine, and more than one Civil War correspondent dipped a quill pen and scrawled on paper propped against a full powder keg converted into a desk. True enough, I've been to Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst and seen the little end table where she penned her poems. True, Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address by hand swaying in a train. True, Matthew Arnold, a country school inspector, composed his famous essays by hand in hotel rooms at night.
But for what must be compelling reasons my betters do not find these thoughts preying on their confidence in their new equipment. What wrinkles their brows is whether the $4,000 TRS-80 II from Radio Shack with two 8 inch drives is compatible with Scripsit 2.0 and whether it uses an 8-bit or 16-bit microprocessor. Matthew Arnold? He's not mentioned in any of the Tandy Corporation brochures. Charles Dickens? Imagine what the guy could have accomplished with two 51/4 inch disk drives, 1000K of megabyte storage and CP/M.
Glancing through the business section of The Washington Post at my picnic table, I come across Apple II Plus system packages on sale at a savings of $804, marked down to $1,799.95 from $2,603.95. My heart skips a beat. The frugal part of me grasps my $2.98 Sheaffer tighter, con amore.
My pen moseys on across the tablet. More reactionary thinking fills the yellow page. My jackass mind is sure stubborn. It insists that the ad I just looked at contains negative data, that if I'd read James Fallows' article two months ago and rushed out to buy the super stupendous Apple II, I would have written out a check for $2,603.95. Then, eight weeks later, glancing at my daily newspaper, I would have discovered that I had spent $804 more than necessary. Such a discovery would have given me the headache of a blow from Conan the Barbarian and thrown me into a writer's block closer to a coma.
"I think you're cheating yourself if you get anything less than two double-density 5 1/4 inch drives, which together should be able to store 400K or more of data," Fallows writes.
He thinks I'm cheating myself with anything less than two. He must mean one. If owning only one is cheating yourself, what is owning none, zero, zip disk drives?
Not only that, but Fallows has the gall to whine because the Processor Technology SOL he bought years ago for $2,500 is an outdated "Hupmobile" compared to the Mercedes computers now available at similar prices. I write this out with my $2.98 black cartridge Sheaffer which cost, it keeps nagging at me, $2,497 less than Fallows' "Hupmobile."
Then a specter of a thought confronts me. If Fallows' computer is a "Hupmobile" compared to the Mercedes computers now available at similar prices, what is my Sheaffer pen? Is my Sheaffer pen a Stanley Steamer? No. Too advanced. A Model-T? No. Too familiar. I'VE GOT IT!
I am operating a dhow of the Nile. Yes, an ancient slant-sailed Arabian coastal vessel, tacking ever so patiently upstream across the narrow lines of my yellow table, a little like poor John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly scribbling in his Big Chiefs. How can I hope to compete with computer-endowed genius: I in my slant- sailed dhow, they in their Hupmobiles and Datsun 280Zs and F-14s and Starship Enterprises with warp speed?
At this rate I could end up some third-world hack like V.S. Naipaul or Gabriel Garc,ia M,arquez. Worse yet, I could remain as handicapped as Leo Tolstoy, who had to write all 2,000 pages of War and Peace with a quill pen, and chose to do so by the light of a single candle.