The Electronic Writer

When Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was published in 1987, I was a sophomore in college and a Douglas Adams fan, so I picked up a copy, his first book that wasn’t part of The Hitchhiker series. In the book was an odd note, wherein Douglas Adams felt the need to say that the book was written on a Macintosh computer. Maybe this was product placement and he was being paid, but he wanted the reader to know that he’d used a word processor.

My family had had personal computers since I was eleven or twelve, and I had even used our Apple IIe to compose documents in high school, but word processors in the eighties were clunky programs, the computer monitors often monochrome and unable to handle fonts or sub/superscripts, the printers almost universally dot-matrix. And in 1986, I was sent away to college with the cutting edge of writing technology: a Webster’s desk-set dictionary and thesaurus, and an electric Daisywheel typewriter with erasable ink. I spent my first year of college clacking out mediocre papers with the Daisywheel that I was too exhausted to revise or edit after the first presentable draft. Writing, to me in those days, was equivalent to typing. And typing was the equivalent of inscribing words in stone. Yes, the ink was erasable, but if you didn’t catch the edit right away, there was almost never a good way to simply erase and replace a word. Editing entire phrases or sentences was almost always out of the question. The thought problem for me, as a young student, was getting the words to behave as if they were static, when my own understanding of the ideas was still in flux.

After a year of writing this way, I discovered there was a computer lab in the building right across from my dorm. For a dollar I could buy a floppy disk and I didn’t have to draft on notepads anymore. I could revise and edit on the fly. I would use the same clunky word processor I’d used on my parent’s computer at home. The trade-off was well-worth it and soon I got better at learning the commands. I don’t remember the papers getting all that much better, but I felt better about the process.

And then something else happened. When I started to write, for myself, when I started writing stories—I had a place to go to now to do that. And so when my other friends went off to the rec. center or to study in the library, sometimes I would go to the computer center to write. There were signs up that made it clear that the computers were reserved for homework only, but I knew no one would be able to tell what my writing was or wasn’t. I wasn’t playing a videogame, which some people did, at least until they got kicked out. And in those days, when there was no Internet, playing a videogame meant bringing your own program and loading it up, which people did. They owned games without owning a computer? Yes. The same way that I was now writing without owning a computer.

My first computer was an early generation IBM with a monochrome monitor and one of my parent’s old dot-matrix printers. I could use the printer for drafts, and walk to the computer center when I wanted to print a finished copy on the laser printer at five cents per page. It was a used computer I found in a classified ad and I paid several hundred dollars for it, much too much even then. It only had a megabyte of memory and I loaded up my clunky word processor, the only program I’d ever put on that computer. And for years I was happy. I had a writing sanctuary in my apartment. I was accumulating stories and was starting to fill up floppy disks. Instead of walking to the computer center I only had to walk to my room. Instead of just writing, now I spent hours editing and rewriting. A friend told me about a graduate writing program in his hometown where a semi-famous author taught. He gave me a goal. I was really enjoying myself, and that was just the beginning.

John Minichillo’s work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Third Coast, Smokelong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, Wigleaf, decomP, and lots of other very cool places. He has work forthcoming at FRiGG, Emprise Review, Triple-Quick Fiction, and Hint Fiction: an Anthology of Stories in Twenty-Five Words or Fewer. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son where they promote the writing of fiction whether there’s time or not. John’s debut novel The Snow Whale will be released by Atticus Books in the summer of 2011.

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3 thoughts on “The Electronic Writer”

  1. Stephen Steele

    Congratulations John on your upcoming publication. You're a literary inspiration with the mind of winston churchill and the sandals of jesus (that's a joke)…I'm proud to know you, albeit in the informal sense of the word and look forward to owning a copy of you work. Congratulations again man.
    I met you guys during one of your nashville fiction workshops a couple of years ago and the tools that you gave us are really invaluable and have really aided in my own creative endeavors, so thanks for all that you do.

  2. John Minichillo


    Thank you and I'm glad the workshop was useful. K and I haven't been able to run for about a year now, but we miss having writers over.


    I remember your book from Authonomy. If I'm not mistaken you were on your way to the editor's desk about the time I bowed out.

    Thank you gents,

    John Minichillo

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