[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.]
Released: April 1984 – August 1988
Specs: 128KB RAM, 65C02 CPU
In my junior year of high school, I started to write more papers for English and other classes, and neither my handwriting nor a typewriter would cut it anymore. I had a Brother daisy wheel printer for my Apple II+, but it sounded like small arms fire crackling across Beirut whenever it cranked something out on its tractor feed paper.
Plus AppleWorks, one of the early word processing programs, didn’t work on my Apple II+.
Fortunately for me, our high school’s library had an Apple //c lurking in one corner by the exit doors, and the librarian (Ms. Newnan) was kind enough to let me skip my lunches and hang out there instead of the noisy cafeteria where I’d been assigned to be.
I spent that time doing homework and papers at first as part of my renewed interest in doing well enough in school to get the hell out of that town, but then it slowly dawned on me.
I could write stories on this thing.
For most of my childhood, I’d told people that I wanted to be a movie director when I grew up, thinking that was the main way that I could make stories come alive for an audience. From what I’d read about George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, I assumed that they just showed up with a story they wanted to tell and then ordered a crew and actors around to do it.
When I wrote and performed stories for my class as a kid, I usually wrote them as scripts that only I could decipher and perform, sometimes improvising on the fly based on their reactions.
Once I got to high school, I’d read enough to recognize that real stories had paragraphs and descriptions and dialogue. My interests became more literary, and my answer to the slightly-changed question (“What do you plan to do for a career?”) metamorphosed into becoming an easily-employable college professor who wrote fiction in his copious free time.
(Hey, we didn’t have the Internet then to disabuse us of our delusions. What little I saw of my guidance counselor, she could only predict that I’d end up in college or prison.)
Access to the library’s Apple //c meant that I could type my work and correct it, and that led to my first attempts at stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Most of the early ones were fairy tale-like, but then they grew more and more solid as time went on.
(It’s interesting to me that my own storytelling evolution followed that of humans: ad hoc performances to drama to simple myths to more complex stories.)
Around this time, the show Twin Peaks had already aired its first season and I was fascinated by the idea of an FBI agent like Dale Cooper for whom emotion was an important part of his detective work. As an proto-emo kid myself, fighting evil while looking dramatically cool to girls appealed to me deeply.
So when we were assigned to write our own Canterbury Tale after reading them for English class, mine was “The F.B.I. Agent’s Tale,” not about Dale Cooper but about an agent a little more like me at the time: creative and heartsick, turning his back on the ordinary world to fight evil alone.
I packed a lot into that story, including some indecision about my future, my split interests between the artistic and the practical, and my desire to do good in the world without having to be around people too much. It had a sad ending, of course, as I perceived to be most likely for me given my high school romances so far.
It was not even close to a good story.
But it was a whole story, and I’d written it with passion from my own (bizarrely perceived) experience. I sat down like a professional, typed in the words, rewrote them as necessary to sound better and more convincing, and birthed a blobby and emotional Thing to share with the world.
It took a lot more writing for those lessons to stick, especially the one about steering toward emotion and mutated personal experience instead of jokes and gags.
I’m not sure any of that could have happened as easily if I’d written by hand or on a typewriter. I needed the friendly (to me, after all my programming) feel of a computer keyboard to invite me in, and what I’d learned about development taught me how to shape things over and over until they felt right.
I spent years afterward trying to learn the “right” way to write a story with scene and structure, character and motivation, plot points and arcs…and really, I more or less had the basic technique down in 1991. All that was left was increasing my practice and improving my taste so I knew when not to stop fixing.
The first real story of my career started because one librarian perceived that I needed a quiet place and an Apple //c more than to be in the cafeteria. I’m grateful she did.