Personally, when the PC revolution got underway, I bought an Apple IIe soon after its introduction. VisiCalc caught my eye. As did Flight Simulator, and going online with a 300-baud modem to local computer bulletin boards. But when it came to writing -- in those days, three drafts of a first novel -- I would not abandon my trusty Hermes portable typewriter. The Apple would not tempt me to some writing Eden. The complexity of computers, I sensed, could only sap the creative process.
This reluctance to mix computers with writing ended abruptly in 1988: I began writing professionally. At different writing jobs, I made use of whatever hardware/software combo the employer had. I fashioned text with PCs, Macs, Sun workstations, and still deemed any personal writing project at night better suited to the beloved Hermes.
I soon realized storing words on electronic media meant the professional wordsmith also did "desktop publishing." I had to worry about font selection, repagination, stylesheets. I wondered when I'd have time to find the right word, the original phrase. Once, while "writing" a software manual, I commented that I'd spent far more time formatting than actually writing. That comment went unanswered. I had a sure sense I needed to make an adjustment to new priorities.
Still, I couldn't shake the idea something was being lost when writers got embroiled in desktop publishing. After five years, I gave up the software manuals, the marketing newsletters, to refocus on personal writing. And for the first time, I thought about moving my writing to that Apple IIe. I hesitated. The monitor was filled with text glowing green on a black background. Would those green emissions overwhelm my inner eye of imagination, unlike a piece of paper sitting in a typewriter? I decided to take the plunge and see.
Maybe I looked sideways when I visualized a story scene. I soon found the Apple IIe gave efficiency analogous to replacing handwriting with typewriting. I only retyped what I needed in successive drafts. Counting words was a snap. And, thankfully, Apple IIe word processing was primitive: more a typewriter with memory, not a desktop publishing system. On balance, a good tool. Before long, I was publishing short stories to the World Wide Web.
But by 1999, living with an Apple IIe was Neanderthal. So despite 15+ years of service, I upgraded to an IBM ThinkPad laptop. I was attracted by portability, the renowned IBM keyboard touch, and a promised multimedia experience of the World Wide Web. As for writing, I would use the full-bodied word processor that came with the ThinkPad. This I accepted as a tradeoff for new PC technology. I gave it a go and lived with a plethora of pull-down menus within pull-down menus. I endured help balloons that appeared without bidding. To keep writing, I resisted becoming expert with all my word processor could do.
This strategy of limits on learning worked but briefly. In months, I was driven to maddening distraction with features I thought I'd accidentally turned on and wouldn't, in a blue moon, set right. Gems like capitalization on autopilot. But what really called for a decision was discovery of quotation marks in the wrong font spread randomly throughout a book-length file (and a pair of left quotation marks at that!).
Moreover, the ThinkPad's operating system, Windows 98, caused me to yearn for the stability of an Apple IIe (if not a Sun workstation). I thought about Linux--the alternative to Windows (unless one buys a new computer and goes Macintosh). But in a serendipitous experiment, I installed the very alternative BeOS on the ThinkPad. As operating systems go, it was a vision of loveliness. Scot Hacker, author of THE BEOS BIBLE, aptly described BeOS as combining "the grace of a Mac and the power of Unix."
The productivity suite I bought for BeOS had a "less is more" flavor and the word processor, in particular, worked well. I wrote a novel without struggle. But too often I tackled the day's writing deciding such issues as a font for the day's draft. The point being, I still had too many choices, compared to my beloved Apple IIe. When I finished the 76,000-word manuscript, I found a disconcerting bug in my otherwise dependable word processor. It repeated words, on occasion, in the text. Admittedly, a dozen "doubles" among tens of thousands of words isn't a big deal, but I wondered if my writing might benefit from even less computer functionality. Did those font choices have a price?
With a new novel to write, the time seemed ripe to switch software. I'd like to say I scoured about for word processors, but I didn't. In my novel, one character would write computer programs. The story question was, What software would he use? It had to be vi. Vi, a Unix editor for plain text files created in 1976 by Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. I'd remembered working with a software engineer, who saw no advantage to word processors and dismissed the "prettiness" of desktop publishing. He did everything in vi. Could I write a novel in vi? I decided, Why not?
Vi fast became -- and remains, 100,000 words later -- my writing implement of choice. Most of all, what I like about vi is something that is, well, aesthetic. I like vi's keyboard-only operation. Vi doesn't assault with helpful balloons or racks of toolbar icons. No, vi has a 70s ambience (no mouse, no GUI) that's refreshingly clean. In that sense, vi is a treasured software servant. It works well without showy presence and respectfully stays out of the way.
Sure, vi is only a digitized window on the ThinkPad screen. But, at times, I can almost imagine another sheet of paper filling up with words, not unlike one I rolled into my Hermes typewriter. That's when vi, the minimalist's text editor, lets the words roll freely, as with Hemingway's carpenter pencil, from my fingertips.
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