[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]
In this entry, I’m off to college with two computers that dueled for my heart.
IBM PS/2 Model 70
Released: April 1987 – April 1993
Specs: 6MB RAM, 386DX 16 MHz CPU
Apple Macintosh IIsi
Released: October 1990 – March 1993
Specs: 17MB RAM, 68030 20 MHz CPU
In Fall of 1991, I started college at the University of Florida.
That summer, I’d sold almost all of my vintage computers (the Commodore 64, the TI-99/4A, the VIC-20, and the Apple II+) for spending money.
(Funny story, that: I called in sick to my boss at the inventory service so I could go to a Don Henley concert, and he growled that I didn’t have to show up. When I called him back a week or so later, he told me he’d fired me. That led to one of the best summers of my life, and those computers were a cheap price to pay.)
So when I arrived at UF, I was computerless (though I brought a giant box of Apple disks in case, I don’t know, I bumped into somebody who still had one).
That meant I had to do all of my writing at the CSE (Computer Science Engineering) building at UF, where there was a huge ground floor computer lab with rows and rows of computers.
- About 40% were VAX minicomputer dumb terminals where you could write programs for class and browse this weird global network through something called Gopher to argue on rec.arts.nerdy about whether the Enterprise could defeat a Star Destroyer.
- About 55% were IBM PS/2 Model 70s, almost always in full use because students seemed to know how to use them better.
- About 5% were Macintosh II SIs, which sat off to the side or in weird secret labs around campus which was perfect for me to avoid crowds.
There were a few basic phases of my writing at UF:
- Letters by hand, sent to woo a young woman.
- Papers written on the PS/2 machines in WordPerfect 5.1 in Courier New font (because that’s all that would print), until I figured out that the Macintoshes were almost always available.
- Stories written on the Macintosh II SI, deeply emo and also meant to woo the same young woman.
- Papers written on the Macintosh II SI, all in Avant Garde font.
- Stories (deeply influenced by Lovecraft and Bradbury) written by hand in libraries while waiting for the young woman to finish studying her endless mathematics and statistics.
- Stories written on the PS/2 or an inherited 486 SX after “discovering” in the Writers Market guide that you could send them to magazines you’d never heard of in case, you know, they wanted them.
I never took a single creative writing class at UF, mostly because I was terrified to be told that I sucked. I managed to write two works of meta-fiction in lieu of research papers for a couple of classes, though that was hardly playing the varsity team; those professors were probably relieved not to read turgid declarative interpretations of 17th century drama.
Though even my turgid declarative interpretative papers tried to be entertaining, at least:
In one of my classes, a student seated in front of me noticed I was line-editing one of my stories and she asked if she could read it. That started a semester of me handing us handing pages back and forth, and the result became a story called “The Trespasser” which appeared eight years later in Cemetery Dance.
(Cool story: I was a Republican back then, largely as an act of deeply repressed rebellion, and I was wearing a Jeb! t-shirt on campus one day when I bumped into my editing friend. Her face seemed to sharpen into a cone of utter revulsion, and she never spoke to me again. Maybe I deserved it.)
In 1994 before I graduated, I got “serious” about writing, which unfortunately meant reading a lot of Writers Digest books, studying psychology for characterization, and outlining a Grand Unified Theory of how I’d write my fiction. Once I had all of that in hand, I’d be ready to start.
If I could go back and give myself some writing advice, I’d tell myself these things:
- More Irving and Jackson and King than Lovecraft, trust me. Make the situations and people abominable, not the prose.
- Photocopy “The Body” out of Different Seasons and type it in word-for-word. Notice how scenes and paragraphs begin and end, how characters express their reactions and feelings, and how much description is required to set up a place.
- There’s no grand theory of writing for you or anyone else. You keep typing the next entertaining thing (either a cool experience or some conflict or both) until it sounds good.
- The model should be journalism, not literature: getting a lot of words down fast and not focusing so much on all the things critics impose afterward like symbolism.
- It’s ugly, but WordPerfect 5.1 on an IBM computer keeps up with your typing better than the Macintosh, and the less that stands between you and the words, the better.
The Macintosh might have won, but there was no way I could afford one of my own, and the writing was pretty much on the wall for IBMs being in every office.
The advent of these IBM compatibles was really more or less the end of computing as a hobby for me. After this, it was some programming at work in Visual Basic or .NET, some assembly and repair of computers, and a whole bunch of angry video gaming.
They become appliances after that, which I rather regret.