Imelda of the writing world

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The Independent Online
A friend recently asked me: "Why don't you sell your manuscripts to an American university?" Then he added, more concerned to be encouraging than tactful, "They'll take anything." But, sadly, technology has abolished my marketable manuscript. I d raft and redraft in the electronic ether and what emerges finally from my printer goes to publisher or newspaper without any changes. Either I shall have to clutter up my machine with every draft of everything, or forget this particular route to a quick buck.

Thinking wistfully about what might have been made me think about myself and technology, and idly I did a mental inventory of the equipment that helps me to function as a writer. The tally made me feel quite faint. My arsenal consists of three word processors, two printers, two tape recorders, one dictating machine and two tape transcribers, not to speak of the fax. Now, before you condemn me as the Imelda Marcos of the writing world, let me explain what has led me to this.

Long, long ago I showed a slight technical bent by preferring to compose on a typewriter than with a pen. Then, when I ceased to be a salarywoman and became a freelance writer, my mother gave me an electric typewriter in the hope that it would speed up production. I became so used to it that I couldn't use a manual typewriter without jamming the keys.

After a few years, pride drove me to a word processor. A girl can listen for only so long to people saying"Chicken!", or "If you don't take the plunge now, you'll be too old." So I bought a computer and soon became dependent on that.

The total by now was one WP, one printer and one tape recorder for doing occasional interviews.

Then my arms ceased to work properly and for many months I couldn't write with anything. My friends wrung their hands but the businessmen among them said "Dictate". "You don't know what you're talking about," I would counter peevishly. "Dictating books isn't like dictating business letters. Who do you think I am? Milton?" After several months awaiting a miracle cure, I bought a dictating machine and began another book.

Now I had to buy a transcriber for the audio-typist, who, fortunately, had a compatible word processor. As I got some action back in my hands, I could edit on my machine the disk she produced on hers. "There you are," cried each businessman smugly. "Whatdid I tell you?"

In due course, in place of an occasional audio-typist, I acquired an assistant, Carol, who needed a word processor of her own that was compatible with mine. So now I owned two. Then I had to travel a lot, and a lap-top became a necessity: it travels lightly, with only a heavy battery-charger and an adaptor for company.

As computer viruses became a menace, it grew more and more difficult when away from home to print out what I wrote on my portable computer. In these days of computer viruses, asking if you may put your disk into someone's computer is the technological equivalent of unsafe sex. So one day last year, in Boston, I bought a portable printer and a cable to link it to the lap-top. Unfortunately, when I use it in the UK, it has to travel with a large adaptor. The last time I travelled with all that paraphernalia, I feared my arms would go out of action all over again.

As I was doing much more interviewing, I bought a spare tape recorder. And since my typing has to be rationed, it was necessary for Carol to do all the transcribing. So she needed a second transcriber, suitable for large tapes, in addition to the one that married up with the dictating machine.

I resisted a fax machine for ages, until my accountant, who is always anxious to see me make more money, told me it was necessary if I was going to be a serious hack. Brushing aside my whimpers, he sold me his old one cheap, and even installed it. And ofcourse, he was quite right. I don't know how I ever did without it. But then, I don't know how I ever managed without any of the other machines, despite having to be stocked up on batteries, tapes (two kinds), disks (two sizes), paper (three kinds, shiny for the fax, ordinary for the UK printer, and specially short for the US printer), toner and spare printer-drum.

Now Carol's machine needs a hard-disk transplant and if this doesn't work, we'll have to get a replacement. My machine is showing signs of exhaustion, and anyway I really need one with a double drive so I can use the laptop's disks in it. But then I'm not too happy with the lap-top, because it is much heavier than the new generation.

As for the portable printer, I fear I'll have to keep it for American use only and buy one for when I'm travelling at home. And those nasty rolls of paper used by the fax machine keep running out, and in any case they fade after a few months. So I reallyneed an up-to-date machine that takes ordinary paper.

Friends are now talking about a new generation of machines. My accountant is on Internet, and threatens to tell me what it is and why I need it. And my friend James, who has always been to technology what Margaret Thatcher was to the public sector, has taken the great leap from fountain pen to Apple Mac and keeps asking me why my machine doesn't produce interesting pictures and play tunes.

Oh dear, where will it all end?