Page 161

The most I ever spent on a home computer was my first: $5,000. I bought it from a typewriter and office machine store in Atlantic City because the newspapers for whom I wrote wanted me to send my articles electronically (instead of Fed Ex, or going over to the apartment of a guy who had a computer and typing it into his machine).

In addition to filing articles about Atlantic City and the Jersey shore, I wrote my first novel on this machine. I would have written it faster if the hard drive didn’t crash so often. When it crashed, everything was lost that wasn’t backed up on a flippy floppy.

Because creative work reinforces obsessions and compulsions, I became very, very nervous when my page count reached 161. That’s because the damned hard drive crashed so many times at, or near that number.

Each time I had to REWRITE, or retype (if I had printed out that much), the story up to that point, and the story changed each time. Like any artist frustrated with his medium (I recall music students at the Oberlin Conservatory having dark, twisted mood swings when they had difficulties with their instruments), I would want to throw the machine out the window of the one story summer home I was living in that winter.

What stopped me was remembering how Keith Laumer would fly into a rage whenever machines didn’t work right for him. Many times he was more at fault than the device. He once smashed an electric drill on the floor because his finger fumbled with the safety lock on the drill’s trigger. He told me to throw the machine on his garbage pile and set it ablaze. When I didn’t do this (I still have respect for mechanical diversity and the rights of the innocently fabricated), he dragged the drill out by its cord, kicked it on to the pile, spat on it, doused it with turpentine, lighted it up and watched it burn.

“Never take crap from machines,” he told me triumphantly  as the fire turned the drill’s casing to black smoke.

I saved my first computer from a similar fate by carrying it into the car and driving uptown to the typewriter repair store, where they either gave me another machine or they sent it out and I went back to my IBM Selectric, where I typed stuff that wasn’t so fragile, aware that I’d have to type it into the computer when my machine was fixed, and certain, also, that I would not be able to type the thing in without changing it somehow, because the effort of revisiting the work was too dull, or (more likely) that I had this urge to make things better.

So my computer came back from repair and I typed (or, rather, inputted) the new stuff and did my best to make things better. I told myself, every time the machine crashed or the floppy was bad and I REALLY lost everything, that I was being asked a question: how much do I want to finish a novel? To me, the only answer was, enough to put up with this and maybe, use it as a way of improving the story.

Good news: the novel was published to mostly good reviews and adequate sales. Better news: I got another computer that didn’t crash all the time.

But there are still times when I think I’m saving the work, and I’m not. Or, as it happened a day ago, I mistakenly delete a file.

I lost many very good pages of a novel. Instead of getting mad at myself, I remember the question: How much do I want this thing to live?

A lot. I’m going to start over and recreate what is lost, just because it’s worth doing.




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