08 August 2017

The Writer Unplugged

MTV and Palladia often do “unplugged” shows of various bands, where they go acoustic instead of electric. And it’s fun to see acoustic versions of songs we know and love. In fact, sacrilege as it might be, I prefer Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of Layla more than the electric version. So I’m not opposed to going unplugged.

However – and you knew there had to be a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you? – we went unplugged a couple of weeks ago, not by choice, and it wasn’t any fun. Of course it’s not the first or only time this has happened. But it did make me think of some things that I’d like to share here.

There was a fire relatively near us, though not near enough that we were concerned about evacuating, which we’ve had to do two or three times in the past, so I guess that was a plus. But this fire caused both our internet and cell service to go out. We did still have satellite TV and our landline. And luckily we had electricity – nothing’s worse than having that or water go out. So we weren’t totally unplugged. But we were largely disconnected from the world. It’s like in the unplugged concerts when they still have the bass plugged in but everything else is acoustic.

So, we couldn’t check on the fire to see if it was coming our way. TV and radio news don’t give you a lot of info. And when there are fires near us we mostly rely on the internet to know what’s going on. But since we had no internet (via cable) and since the cell service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. And couldn’t get updates on the fire. That wasn’t a good feeling.

But since we did have electricity we could continue to work on computers or do other things. And here’s how this connects to writers and writing: I was working on rewriting a story. Normally when I do that I’m flying all over the internet, researching this and checking that as I write. And playing hooky from writing, pretending that the “extra” research I’m doing is really necessary. But I couldn’t do that that weekend. No internet research – no playing hooky on the net. And that was beyond frustrating. I have a pretty good reference library but you get spoiled with the ease of finding things without having to leave your desk. So, while I could continue to work on the story I had to leave a lot of things blank to be filled in later, once the net came back on. This disrupts the flow and the “zen” space of writing and can get very frustrating. It also shows just how dependent we’ve become on all of these modern conveniences.

On top of that, our microwave “blew up” around the same time. And we’ve now been without a microwave for a while. And that’s been very frustrating too. How do you quickly reheat that cup of coffee that keeps you up all hours while doing those rewrites? How do you warm up leftovers? And a million other things?

In ye olden days, of course, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to them, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who the hell needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wowser! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? Then, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house one day and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93 and I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a computer, one of those fancy shmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“white out”) – and supporting Mike Nesmith and his mother 😉. It was liberating. You felt more creative because now you could move something and just try it out. You could cut and paste and re-cut and re-paste to your heart’s content. You could change a character’s name on a whim and not worry about it. It really freed the imagination. Hard to believe now how we made things work before. Before you would be hesitant to make changes because it was so hard to make them. Time consuming and impossible to do.

But not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and that can search the net and TVs that are largely running on computer chips. I just downloaded a pedometer to my phone and can track the number of steps I take every day.

My wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency. She takes the train from work and just the other day got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate.

So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or love to eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to unplug sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience. Let me tell you it was no fun when we lost most of our communication with the outside world.

As writers, and in general, we’ve become so dependent on these devices that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient, but a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we are.


And now for the usual BSP.

My short story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” from the December 2016 Ellery Queen is nominated for a Macavity Award. If you’d like to read it, and the stories of all the nominated authors, please check them out at the links below. If you like my story I hope you’ll want to vote for it. And thank you to everyone who voted for it and got it this far:

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP
Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck
Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/
Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/Ghosts-of-Bunker-Hill
Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I
Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

If you want to read a great article on the Macavity nominees, check out Greg Herren's blog: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/24/beatnik-beach/

My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse – just in time for the real eclipse on August 21st. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.


  1. Congratulations and best of luck with your stories.

    A nice account of writing back when! the one thing I miss, odd because I am not a good typist, is the wonderful sound of a real typewriter keyboard and the little bell when the carriage returned.

  2. Thanks, Janice!

    And when you mention the typewriter keyboard and bell it does make slightly nostalgic. But very slightly. The computer makes writing so much easier in so many ways, I'd never go back to a typewriter unless I had no choice. :-)

  3. I will look back over old scripts I wrote or even college papers, all typed on a manual typewriter, and wonder how did I do that with out rewriting it about a dozen times. I am very sure I wrote it once and that was it. There might be a few typos, but nothing like what I have to edit now. That's when I wonder what changed. Am I typing faster and making errors or am I comfortable with being able to change my mind. Maybe having those options now lets me be more daring. Or is it something else?

  4. One small story here - my wife worked in the office of the Business College at a nearby university and had a Selectric typewriting on a side table to use occasionally and discovered most 21st Century university students do not know what that machine was. Then again, we at the university polcie department used an old adding machine as a lie detector.

  5. I remember when I saved my money and bought my very first Selectric typewriter! What an amazing change from my old manual! I had that thing for YEARS. It hummed when you turned it on, like an old friend. kind of put me in the mood to write. And, of course, the greatest advantage of it was that it didn't have all these little glowing buttons to distract me and take me off to the internet, etc....

    o'Neil, tell me more about using an old adding machine as a lie detector!

  6. I used to work at home doing transcription & was an "independent contractor" which meant I had to pay for the supplies. The problem with the typing elements was that occasionally one of the teeth broke off. There wasn't a way to repair a broken typing element & so it required the purchase of a new one. My daughter was little then & called them typing helmets. I spent a lot of money on those & Liquid Paper!!

  7. I think having those options, Gayle, does allow us to be more daring. Because it’s so easy to change and change again.

    O’Neil, I believe that the students wouldn’t know what a Selectric or a typewriter is. And I think it’s kind of sad. I don’t know everything that came before but I know a fair amount of what was what. I don’t think young people do today. – But how did you use an adding machine as a lie detector? Wow.

    Eve, I also remember switching from an older type typewriter to a Selectric. What a difference! At the time :-) .

    Typing helmets! Love that, Elizabeth. And yes, even those of us who didn’t work at transcription spent a lot of money on Liquid Paper and such. Overall, I’d say I’m much happier today.

  8. We had our computers go out recently for a whole day including the wifi connection. My intelligent hubby remembered there was something called a Hot Spot on our mobil phones. He turned on his phone, turned on the Hot Spot, and our computers wifi linked to the Hot Spot just as if we were sitting in a Starbucks. It was great and our work for the day got done.

  9. Nancy, I'm glad your hotspot worked and got you back up and running. Unfortunately, our cell service was out too so we couldn't even do the hotspot thing. And you really do feel disconnected from the world.

  10. Great piece, Paul. When I teach about APA format, I always describe typewriters with PICA or Elite fonts. Do you remember circular erasers with the brush tail?

  11. Thank you, Cindy. And you made me laugh. I do remember those erasers, though I haven't thought about them in ages.

  12. I still have my Selectric, purchased back when I was in my early twenties from an IBM salesman who came to my house. Unfortunately, it no longer functions properly and I've no idea where to take it for repairs.

    As nice as computers are, a typewriter is still better for addressing envelopes and mailing labels.

  13. Paul, your post here resonates especially because we're suddenly without internet at home for a couple of weeks with an unexpected broken cable in the yard at the place we just moved too. And yes, you realize quickly how much you rely on certain things (in our case, also, Netflix to keep our five-year-old occupied while we unpack).

    One of my favorite pre-computer typewriters had a small screen where you could type a line and review it before you "printed" it on the page. I forget what it was, but I felt like I was on the cutting edge of technology!

  14. Michael, we still have s Selectric too. But I’m not sure if it works. For a long time we did keep it for doing labels, but then we figured out how to do it the computer. I take that back, my wife figured out to do that on the computer.

  15. Art, I hope you get your internet back soon! As I know I can relate and empathize. That typewriter you mention sounds like maybe an early dedicated word processor? Maybe? And yes, how the cutting edge changes.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>