Which is interesting, because my position, at this point, is essentially that of a woman who took time off to stay home with children. A position that would have been, to those coming up after, unimaginably less worrying in the day of the typewriter. (I now read ads that require, inter alia, a PowerPoint whiz; as an ET acolyte I naturally renounce Satan and all His works, sc. Powerpoint, but feel a job app would not be enhanced by reference to ET on the cognitive evils of PP or by Mark Gertz's ET Kitten Assassin wallpaper. In my young day applying for secretarial work did not involve these crises of conscience.)
Can't see any point in identifying the interview for which I expanded on the theme at bloggish length, but these were the thoughts of the day:
If you have a job that requires a lot of typing you end up getting a lot of practice; your speed builds up over the years, to the point where you can type faster than you think (at least if you are working out something complicated). I used to type 100wpm, and now feel chagrined if I take a test and find my speed is down to a rubbishy 88.
This is fine for the actual writing of a book, or taking notes from a text, or blogging, but it is not so good for dealing with people in the industry. The temptation is to do business by e-mail, and in particular to address complex subjects by writing long, complex e-mails. (It SEEMS to make sense because then everything is in writing, and both parties can go back and confirm what was said.)
This works if the person you write to is also a competent typist, someone similarly maddened by the constraints of a Blackberry or cell phone, someone who prefers to dash off 880-word e-mails in a shame-making 10 minutes on a full keyboard, hence (at a minimum) laptop with full screen on which YOUR 880+-word e-mails can be read rapidly in big blocks of screen space. Someone who will naturally interpolate replies to a series of questions into the text, permitting you to do the same in response.
If you are dealing with someone who thinks it worth typing tmrw rather than tomorrow, someone who writes (and reads) e-mails by Blackberry, someone who gets many e-mails in the course of a day, the flood of text is likely to drive them mad. It’s better with this sort of person to keep e-mails to the length of a Tweet and do most business by phone. I didn’t know.
Equally disastrously, if you work as a secretary you internalize a simple hierarchical picture of the business world. Your academic qualifications are irrelevant; what counts is the place you occupy in the hierarchy. Occupying this position, you perform various tasks upon request. You don’t argue; you don’t explain that the task would best be performed by the person who made the request; you don’t put the task aside and explain, if asked, that it does not need to be done for another couple of months; you don’t put the task aside and explain, if asked, that none of the other places you worked ever asked you to perform it and that you are simply doing what you did in all the other places you worked. No, you just carry out the task as soon as asked, and you try to do it right first time. And none of this is contingent on enthusiasm for the people, or the project, or the company; you’ve been brought in to do a job, you do the job.
You then imagine that as a writer you can step into a system with a similar hierarchy, only at a different place in the hierarchy. You are no longer providing support; you are now the principal, the client, the person for whom services are provided. So you expect to give instructions and have them carried out promptly without argument. You give instructions and they are not so much airily waved aside as ignored. Mysteriously, people are lavish with praise of your talent, the word ‘genius’ is used with gay abandon – but the mere fact that you are a genius does not mean that you can have a document photocopied, a working group list, a meeting with an agenda.
You (well, I, at any rate) are then prey to baffled rage. You are told that a book will not be sent to editors on Monday because the agent is superstitious about Mondays (!), then that the book was not sent out on Tuesday or Wednesday because the copying service was closed for Passover (!!), then that there is no point sending it out this week because it is now Good Friday and everyone will be out of the office until the following Tuesday (!!!). Your book enjoys the level of care celebrated in “United Breaks Guitars.” You are presently reduced to the state of the dogs used as subjects in experiments on learned helplessness, the ones now universally condemned for cruelty to animals.
[There are undoubtedly many other lessons to be learnt, but even a rubbishy 88 wpm is already making this answer longer than readers are likely to sit still for. Also, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut has just commented that my lack of discretion has probably not helped me in dealing with the publishing industry. Perhaps I should just mention that I have used examples from persons who have had no connection with the publication of LR.]
Just to show I am not COMPLETELY self-obsessed, I add that one gets a rather terrifying insight into the cost of technological advance to women in pink collar jobs:
Before the advent of the personal computer and office software, it was roughly the case that a secretary could master skills needed to operate a machine (typewriter, possibly adding machine) and move in and out of the workforce without much trouble: a machine acquired for use in the home would remain roughly comparable to that in the office, however many years went by, and typing speed could be worked on as required. (You can throw in shorthand and not change the position much.)
Word processors changed this, spreadsheets made it worse. If I remember correctly, WordStar was an early leader in the field of word processing; it was displaced by WordPerfect for DOS in the mid- to late 80s, though some offices also used Word; in the early 90s Windows rendered most of the keystrokes for the DOS-based programs obsolete, so it was necessary to be up to speed on WordPerfect or Word for Windows; WordPerfect did not come up with a good version for Windows fast enough, so that Word gained ground, and within a decade Word was virtually unchallenged within the office environment.
Like WordPerfect before it, Word has gone through a number of substantial changes (Word 97, Word 2003, Word 2007 and Word 2010 each required new skills). And of course I’ve said nothing about the spreadsheet wars (Lotus 1-2-3, QuattroPro, Excel), PowerPoint, e-mail programs, scanning technology. In other words, if you worked in an office without interruptions you could count on getting trained to the next new thing; if you took time out, or tried to move from one place to another, you could find yourself scrambling to master completely different software. Taking time out to write a novel may not be terribly common; taking a few years to stay home with small children was once relatively low-risk, now much harder to come back from. (Note that a block of four or five years – which would once have been unremarkable for a woman who wanted to have a child and stay home until it started school – is easily long enough to render dominant office software obsolescent or even obsolete.)
Funnily enough -- this did not come up in the interview because I sensed I had already gone on too long -- the way I picked up word processing was through a free course at the Computer Learning Centre at Oxford. That was how I made the leap from the typewriter to the world as we know it. The training was in WordPerfect for DOS. There were later, terrifying leaps when I no longer had access to the Computer Learning Centre. (WP for DOS was friendly to a fast typist; Windows, intuitive to so many, was terrifying. And Word! Word was an obscure little program that had no Reveal Codes. Which had to be picked up somehow on the Q.T. on the computer of a friend who gave courses.)
So I look at unemployment figures, and I remember how I picked up this skill as a freebie when I was doing a doctorate, on a senior scholarship, and I tend to think cheap easy access to relevant skills would solve problems for a lot of people who have never thought of being Prince Hamlet. While also thinking that the skills I really needed were those required to deal with my editor-to-be, an Oxford contemporary -- the solution to that problem would seem to have been a handsome entertainment allowance.
So. Programming. A world without PowerPoint. A beautiful little command line world where you type in text. Nice.