Friday, March 27, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Four"

On my last network writing job, now more than four years ago, I was consulting on a show whose staff was comprised of writers who were considerably younger than I was. Two in particular, John and Ron, took advantage of my “Elder Statesman” status to question me about my experiences during television’s “dinosaur days.” I felt like a caveman being grilled by members of a succeeding generation.

“What was is like before fire?”


That, in fact, was the precise formulation of one of Ron’s inquiries.

“What was it like doing shows before computers?”

It was a legitimate and interesting question, one for which I could supply a definitive, “I was there”-type of answer. From the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, computers in show offices were not yet in regular use. Actually, they were in the mid-eighties, but the owners of the show I worked on were too cheap to pay for them.

We were still using typewriters.

The typewriters themselves had greatly improved. No more messy ribbons. The letters on individual hammers had been replaced by an all-encompassing, silver “letter ball”. And, now electric, the keys were much easier to press down. (Let a kid press down on a typewriter key today, and they’ll wonder why nothing’s happening.)

The typewriter’s last hurrah was the IBM Selectric II, which offered an exciting new advancement called, “Correct-Type.”

“Correct-Type” was this “letter-width”-sized strip of white tape, attached to the typewriter between the “letter ball” and the paper you were typing on. The tape had this, I don’t know, white powder sprinkled on it. When you made a mistake, you would backspace to the mistake, “Correct-Type” the mistake – meaning you retyped the mistake while pressing the “Correct-Type” button – and poof! – the white powder covered that bad boy” boo-boo right up! You then typed in the corrected version, and off you went.

When the page was later printed, on a Xerox machine, only the corrected version was visible. The mistake had completely disappeared. At the time, we thought it was magic.

Before “Correct-Type”, there was “White-Out”, which you applied to the mistake with a tiny little brush, like you’re putting on nail polish. You had to blow the spot dry, before typing the correction. This took a considerably longer time than “Correct-Type.”

You also needed a delicate touch, or the liquid would run all over the page. Some of us were more adept at “White-Outing” than others. (Dammit! I’m a writer, not a manicurist.)

Before “White-Out”, there was the eraser. Erasing took longer than “White-Outing”, was rarely entirely effective, and was invariably messier, often leading to scrunching, or, with excessive “over-erasing”, the tearing of a hole through the paper.

Before the eraser – we are now before my time – there was the “x-ing out” method, which doesn’t work with scripts, because it interferes with the flow when you’re reading them. For us, the only legitimate “pre-eraser” option was ripping the paper out of the machine and typing the whole page over again.

That took forever.

As a freelancer, I remember finding “typos” in scripts I was about to hand in, and actually saying to myself, because there was nobody else in the room,

“I don’t care.”

At some point, you just have to stop. Otherwise, you start retyping the page, and in the process, ideas for improvements come to mind, so retype the page again, and then there’s typos in the improvements, so you retype the page again, and ideas for other improvements come to mind, and before you know it:

“Writer Dies Retyping Page Eight For the Fifteenth Time.”

Sometimes, when I was feeling sorry for myself, I thought about writers from the past whose work situations were even more burdensome than my own. Imagine scribes, recording things on tablets with a hammer and a chisel. One mistake, and they had to find another stone.

When you got into production, the pre-computer rewrite process was exponentially more tedious and time-consuming than it is today. To my writer colleague Ron, it was unfathomable how we actually did it. My answer to, “What was it like doing shows before computers?”, accurate though of questionable political correctness, was this:

“We had women.”

And so we did. Two secretaries, as we called them – as there was no other name for them at the time – always female, participated in a rewrite process involving a constant and, when successfully executed, fluid rotation.

It worked like this.

We’re rewriting Scene A. “Secretary One” sits in the room, pen and spiral notepad in hand, recording – either by writing really fast, or in a method that ultimately disappeared called “shorthand” – all the writers’ joke pitches, delivered in a cacophony of chaos and confusion. The “show runner” selects which “pitch” they want inserted in the script, and the process proceeds in such fashion until Scene A is successfully revised.

“Secretary One” then returns to her desk and retypes Scene A in its entirety. In the meantime, “Secretary Two” comes in and repeats the process with Scene B.

When she’s finished, “Secretary One” returns with the Scene A “rewrite”, which the “show runner” proofreads, double-checking the secretary, and deciding if they’re satisfied with the revisions. If additional changes are required, “Secretary One” records them, the returns to her desk and retypes Scene A, which could run six or more pages, yet again.

While “Secretary Two” is out retyping Scene B, “Secretary One” returns for Scene C. “Secretary Two” then returns for Scene D, and off you go until “Fade Out.”

There’s a final “proof-read” at the end, with some inevitable further retyping, and then you’re done. Until tomorrow’s rewrite, when you do it all again.

That’s what it was like doing shows before computers. Any changes, large or small – there was no “backspacing” out a word or “deleting” chunks of material, no “Spell-check” no “Cutting and Inserting” – every revision required an exhausting, labor-intensive effort.

By the secretaries.

You know, I just thought of something. In the post-typewriter era, despite the technological advancements where every process became faster and more efficient, somehow, we never got out of there any earlier.

I wonder why that was.

Followup on a comment:

Dr. M is a psychologist. It is apparently not good for her or for her patients' progress to have too much known about her life. If this weren't the case, she'd be mentioned far more often in this blog. As for the proposal, I proposed in a spontaneous gesture of euphoria, and she, I am life-longedly grateful to say, accepted.


growingupartists said...

Hey Earl, found two new channels. TMC and AMC, gonna raise my children on classics. What's an iPod (seriously).

rms said...

I learned to type on an old Underwood manual, a hefty monster of 15 lbs. You could kill someone with that thing and build muscles in your fingers while typing. For the first several years of working on a computer, I pounded the keyboards to death. Sometimes I miss that old dinosaur and the way the bell dinged at the end of the line.

I remember trying out the "new" IBM Selectrics with Correct type. They were fantastic!

I also used to know shorthand and still remember a bit of it.

I find it humourous that computers were supposed to make us the paperless society when there's more paper than even in my office.

Thanks for the walk down memory lane, and I'm not even that old!

A. Buck Short said...

Well Mr. P. you’ve got another hit on your hands with this one. As usual, although no one asked, we’ve also found my own undergrad psych degree extremely important to our marriage. I looked and looked, and finally found a woman with low enough self esteem to stick with me. We are currently celebrating our 39th anniversary. Well perhaps “celebrate” might be too strong a word; but the level of acknowledgement remains relatively positive. Please inform the good doctor that the only reason we lasted 39 years is because we discovered the 36th anniversary was counseling.

Some old friends to warm the cockles of your heart: Courier-II 10-pitch, Prestige Elite.
Ah, the Selectric II. I still have two in the home office. Came in handy for typing addresses during the 5 years it took to figure out how to feed envelopes and labels through the laser printer. When I opened the film office in an office suites situation in the late 80s, I soon became the last tenant in the complex still using an electric typewriter. But tried to identify with those cyber-whippersnappers. Once, after a power surge, the word went out that the guy in 18E was beside himself after having lost an entire “word.”

Because the office suites management charged 15-cents a page for photocopying, I was also the last one using carbon paper. Worse, I still have 2 boxes of unused onion skin, which, for the onion-initiated, was an extremely lightweight, semi-translucent paper that you could make carbon copies onto and store in your records without taking up all the room of that bulky .05 mm. thick regular copy paper. Also quite handy if you ever needed to fire off an airmail missive to war-torn Britain. Some people called onion skin Vellum, but to me that always sounded like the name of a secretary in a Patrick Dennis/Neil Simon comedy.

Recently attempted to trade one of the two Selectrics (the blue one) in to a typewriter repair guy in exchange for cleaning the other (the black one). Offer was politely declined as the gentleman escorted me into a back room with its elephants’ graveyard of Selectrics standing by as organ donors. Sort of like this photo, multiplied by about 20:

On the other hand, the manual Underwood I finally tossed out around 1979 is going for about $350 in antique stores. It is small comfort to a would-be writer that Mark Twain had been bankrupted by a typesetting device.

Of course the only current use for White-Out or “Liquid Paper” is to afford one the opportunity to introduce a reference to Monkee Michael Nesmith’s mother into casual conversation. That, and, of course, forging documents for identity theft.

Recently purchased a newfangled Brothers electric typewriter for the other office. Hell of a buy at about $45 -- if you don't mind typing in Chinese. I’d have gone as high as $50 if it had an actual moving part instead of a memory chip. And $60 if I could remember why we bought it. In the 4 months it is taking our team of consultants at Bletchley Park to decipher the manual, it has been fortunate to have retained relative mastery of cursive -- and finally realizing why they call it that.

As for your secretarial pony express, we employ a similar system here at our polygamous ranch fertility clinic in Eldorado, TX. Hope you don’t mind how I use this overly responsive technique to your postings to get the brain working in the morning, before attempting something that could otherwise actually be dangerous, like operating a forklift.

sean said...

I was at an ACTRA workshop this weekend and saw a tape where you were being interviewed among others including Frank Shuster. You were talking about an onset crisis where there were Moustaches stolen. Please elaborate.

I'm a fan of your blog.