When I first started hawking my stories round town, the only real tool at my writerly disposal was a manual typewriter approximately the size – and weight – of London, with an ever-increasing number of jammy keys, and malfunctioning ribbons.
In those days ribbons had quite a lot to do with writing. They lived on two spools in the typewriter’s casing, and slowly unwound and rewound themselves, over and over again, till the ink was worn out. (Or, well, that’s how I remember it. Funny how something as normal as breathing for so many years seems so hazy and alien now. Take a trip here for the Wiki-How low-down.) At least, that’s what they did when they worked. But mine didn’t. I’d get to the end of one spool and I’d WIND BACK THE RIBBON BY HAND. That’s how much I wanted to keep writing. (For one memorable time in my life, I had two-tone print, like a half-baked sort of traffic light, with red at the bottom and black at the top.) If you wrote something silly you reached for the salaciously-named corrective fluid or (more often, if you were me) retraced your steps with a row of snarling Xs. A bit like barbed wiring.
To summarise: you had to be really ashamed of a line, in those days, to delete it.
The other thing I mentioned was the jammy keys. You’d literally hammer the words on the page, in those far-away days, and my hammers would sometimes – quite often – refuse to lie down again after I’d used them. Perhaps (in my fantasy land) they were trying to read what I’d written. More likely they needed some oil. Either way, it was quite an ordeal, most days, to get more than a handful of paragraphs onto the page. These machines were so flipping noisy you couldn’t type much after ten if you lived within listening range of other humans. Your fingers grew steadily flatter from thumping the keys. It was hard bloody work. It was manual labour. (See what I did there? Sorry.)
You sent off your stories by post (a nice pigeon arrived at your door with a clip round his leg, and you gently attached your short story and waved him goodbye). When you entered your work for a prize the results would arrive in a similar fashion, or maybe by telephone – landline, I mean – and then only, of course, if you’d won: if you hadn’t, and hadn’t requested a notification, you might never know the results.
When I hung up my writer’s gloves for a while (with a crippling case of The Block) things had already changed. Like Dylan, I’d long since gone electric (first with a plug-in typewriter – whoop! – then the humble Word Processor. Yes, I’m a sort of computer, but whoa there, girl, what’s this internet shopping you speak of? And today’s top compilation of Cats Being Jerks? Are you out of your tiny mind? I’m a word processor, sweetheart. For the processing of words).
Sometimes, laptop, much as I love you, I wish you were humbler and simpler and more single-minded. I wish you were more about processing words and less about oh what’s that nice shiny link over there – and, aw, that’s so cute – and, haha, that’s the funniest ever and – fifty-seven flagged emails I haven’t replied to – and sign this petition – and, oh, I’ll retweet that – and, yes, I love cutting and pasting, and googling for everything possibly relevant (certainly saves on the telephone calls to my dad: ‘Do you know when the sun sets in March?’; ‘When were seat belts made law?’; What does camphor smell of?’, etc) but my brain seemed to shape its thoughts more easily – in the tap-tap-tap-ding! of those olden days – when it took so much work to commit them to paper.
And competitions, too, have moved on. There are prizes for stories and poems, same as always, of course – but the stories have sub-sets now (flash fiction and memoir), and something Tania Hershman tweeted the other day about ‘drabbles’ had me reaching for my dictionary (by which, ahem, I mean googling for the definition) to learn that, no, these are not the off-spring of Margaret Drabble, but rather a tightly-laced Victorian governess of a story form: 100 words exactly. Ouch. That’s rigid. (Rigidity rather works, though, when it comes to short stories… but that’s for another post.) And the last prize I entered myself (the Fish Short Story Prize 2011) was entirely an online-affair. Did they want my address? No, they didn’t. But what if my email dies, somehow, I was thinking. How will they tell me I’ve won? (Oh, come on, we all think it. Fess up.) In the end I was short-listed (close, but no cigar), and my email continued to function as normal, and yes, the website crashed when the long list was published, but, ultimately, the world kept on spinning, and no-one but me was remotely sniffly or sad for the ritual of giving the big brown envelope a kiss for luck before sending it, actually, physically, off to its fate. Call me an old romantic, but, sigh, there was something I liked about that.