It’s always nice to rediscover an old friend, human or otherwise. One of my best non-human friends back in the largely forgettable decade of the 90s was the Smith-Corona PWP 3850 Personal Word Processor. I found my old buddy in a box beneath some quilts in the shadowy back corner of a little-used closet the other day. To a writer this was the equivalent of a classic car lover discovering a vintage Maserati 5000 GT in pristine condition in a neighbor’s garage, for sale at a ridiculously low price.
I bought the Smith Corona second hand around 1996 and did A LOT of writing on it. Novels, short stories, screenplays, query letters, nonfiction. Truth be told—a difficult task for a writer of fiction–most of it wasn’t very good. In retrospect, though, it shouldn’t have been very good. No one becomes adept at anything—even if one is blessed with a natural ability for said task—without investing a great deal of time and effort, without trial and error, experimentation. Instant gratification is a fantasy. You have to learn your craft, learn what works and what doesn’t. You have to discern your own strengths and weaknesses, and deal with both.
You pay your dues and I did that, with the complicity of the 3850. While the technology of that old Smith Corona seems charmingly antiquated now, at the time the PWP offered one major and magical advantage over the Brother electric typewriter that it supplanted. You were able to ‘process’ your words, like a food processor synthesizes disparate ingredients in a recipe to ultimately create something tasty and memorable. You could move those words around on that small dim screen like pieces on a chessboard, transfer blocks of text, add and delete words, sentences and paragraphs, make entire chapters disappear with one bold key stroke. It was the control panel of a starship and the helm was in your hands, or more precisely at your fingertips. You controlled the speed, the route and the destination, a James T. Kirk of words. The PWP 3850 was an enabler that empowered, allowing you to view the Big Picture and to change the focus of that picture via keyboard.
The sturdy PWP rocked and rolled, took a licking and kept on ticking. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Plug this baby in, turn it on and like the undead of word processing it comes right back to life after 15 years or so, pulling up some long-forgotten manuscript. The fact that the old PWP is loaded with manuscripts, notes and story ideas tells you something else: that getting anywhere in the arts is a long and winding road with many potholes and frustrating detours along the way, the endpoint often murky at best. Writing novels is like toiling on a solitary literary assembly line; a lot of drudgery on your way to creating the finished product. The old cliché about inspiration versus perspiration turns out, for better or worse, to be more than merely a cliché and closer to absolute truth. A thick skin is required and strong legs, because many times you’ll feel like you’re slogging through quicksand and getting nowhere fast.
If there’s any advice I would offer to aspiring writers it’s the lesson that becomes only too apparent from cracking open the creaky word-filled vault of the 3850: persistence and perseverance. Tenacity. Aren’t they all pretty much the same thing? Yes, no and maybe, but you’ll need all of that and more if you choose to write, of if writing chooses you.
Along the way you’ll also need to develop a sense of self-confidence about your work, a willingness to take risks, an unshakeable belief in that work and in yourself, an ability to listen to the advice of others but to ultimately make the final decisions and live with those. It’s your name on the story or the book cover, no one else’s. Today you’ll have newer, faster and infinitely more efficient tools to help speed your journey. But whatever state of the art technology you might employ in the writing process won’t be as nearly as much fun as that big old Smith Corona 3850, or as much of a classic beauty and true friend.
Years ago my mom asked me why I didn’t just throw out the PWP 3850 rather than packing it up and lugging it along on various moves. Because, I told her, they might need it in the Smithsonian one day. The Smithsonian hasn’t called as yet, but when they do the PWP 3850 and I will be ready.