A YOUNG COLLEGE man wanted advice. "I'm planning a career as a writer, and I'd like to ask you a question," he said.
I braced myself, fearing he would ask me about style, plot, sentence construction, dangling participles, split infinitives and all the petty details that caused my English teachers to fling papers back in my face.
But instead he said, "What kind of computer do you recommend I buy?"
Now that was something I could help him with. Indeed, I could lecture at Harvard on the subject of the computer and the writer.
So I said, "How much were you planning on spending?"
He said he could go as high as $1,200.
No need to spend that much, I told him. I could get him started in writing for about $10, maybe less.
He said, "You're kidding. There's no computer that cheap."
True, but for $10 you can buy a large box of pencils and a tall stack of blank paper. And maybe a cheap pencil sharpener, although an old paring knife will do. Then you can write.
He still thought I was joking, even after I pointed out that libraries were crammed with great books written with pencils, scratchy pens or even goose quills. Shakespeare didn't worry about how much RAM he had. And Mark Twain didn't feel deprived for the lack of a laser-jet printer.
"Well, I'd really like something with a spell checker," he said.
Then blow an extra ten spot and buy a dictionary.
But he persisted. "I'm sure a computer with a good word-processing program would make it easier. I've been looking at the computer ads, and I think..."
Ah, yes, the computer ads. Sleek machines that are user-friendly, user-adoring. Able to perform miracles with a single keystroke. No, not even a keystroke. Just spin the little mouse and tap its plastic head and obedient little icons will dance across your screen.
Forget it, I told him. If you are going to become a writer, the last thing you want is a computer because you won't become a writer, you will become a nerd or a nervous wreck.
How can any machine be user-friendly if the user must wade through a 500-page manual to understand how the creature works? But there's no point in reading the manual because it is written in computer gibberish.
But that's just the first manual. You have another 500-page manual for something called DOS.
They could have called it: "The Buttons You Got to Hit to Run Your Computer," which we would understand even though we could never hit the right buttons. Instead, they call it DOS. That's what I mean. Is DOS a word? Not around here. Maybe in Europe: "DOS me zuh ball, Fritz."
But you can't understand that manual, either, because it is even worse gibberish than the manual on the machine. By the second chapter, your eyes glaze. By the third, your jaw goes slack. By the fourth, you scream and throw it across the room. You have read 100 pages that could have been written by a madman or a monkey hitting typewriter keys at random.
And it goes on. You have still another 500-page manual for the word-processing program. That one will tell you about fonts and macros. Did Hemingway ponder a macro? He would have thought it was a fish.
But don't worry, the computer ads say. Now it is all simple. They have created something called "windows." And windows will give you little cartoon-like creatures that are supposed to fulfill your every wish. If you can understand that manual.
Did William Faulkner have little creatures on his old typewriter? If so, they were the product of whiskey, which addles the brain less than cartoon creatures and menus and buttons that send messages to the screen demanding: "Abort? Quit? Try Again? lTC Drop Dead? Exit? Go To Hell You Schnook?"
So when your screen fills with crazy talk and abuse, you rush to the computer store's book section and snatch up books that simplify everything. That has become an industry in itself -- $25 books that claim to turn the computer manuals into English.
But don't be fooled. Yes, they begin: "This is how little Mary and her daddy learned to use their their brand new BreezYeasY 2,4,6,8, Oh How We Appreciate computer program. It is so much fun. First, daddy hit the Alt key, while holding down the shift key and the F-9 key, until the prompt C/:.. came on the screen, and Mary laughed because it was so BreezYeasY."
That's their trick. They still use gibberish, but they throw in baby talk. Or maybe try to sound like a buddy down at the bar. Except if a buddy down at the bar talked that way, he would be taken to detox.
But maybe you persevere, plunging ahead for weeks and months, becoming baggy-eyed and gaunt, until you finally understand the mysteries of hitting the Shift, Alt and F-9 keys. And C/... makes perfect sense.
Then what happens? Are you now a writer? No, because you no longer care about writing. You have become a computer freak. Now all you want to do is crunch numbers, interface, sit there at 3 a.m. whipping messages through your modem to distant electronic bulletin boards, eagerly sharing the joys of ...
And somewhere in an old farmhouse in Maine, a middle-aged housewife is using pencils and grocery-bag paper to write her innermost, erotic fantasies that will become next year's biggest best seller.
So keep it simple. And if you must leap into the computer age, try Nintendo and Super Mario. Believe me, it is easier to kill the King of the Koopa than to fathom the profundities of Syn.Erk/Blip.