There has been a great outpouring since the death of Steve Jobs on Wednesday. This is only fitting. Mr. Jobs was responsible for many great outpourings over the past three decades — including my own.
In 1984, when I went off to college, I took along the fancy typewriter that had gotten me through high school: a Brother Correctronic with the magical ability to remember — and erase — an entire line of typing. Erasing a regrettable sentence on the Correctronic was simply a matter of pressing a button. No need for messy Wite-Out or Ko-Rec-Type, products whose very names seemed to deliver a subtle jab. The graphic on the Correctronic's erasure button was a combination of a backward-facing flag and a large "X." Today we'd have no problem recognizing it as a "delete" key, but back then, deleting was a relatively new concept in the realm of typing, and not yet word-worthy.
The ability to erase a whole sentence was a great leap forward, but writing a term paper was still a torturous affair, a matter of constant cutting and pasting — literally, not figuratively, the way we've come to use "cut and paste." In the blear of the night before the paper was due, I'd discover a paragraph on page two that really belonged in the vicinity of the conclusion; a footnote that had somehow migrated to the bottom of the wrong page; an entire section that belonged on the scrap-heap.
Some time in the wee hours, my Franken-paper would be done, or at least as done as it was going to be. Then it was time to type a clean copy — a chore somehow simultaneously tedious and nerve-wracking, and one carrying with it the additional punishment of forcing me to masticate, one painful sentence at a time, the huge wad of mediocrity I'd created.
By the time I graduated in 1988, there'd been a quiet revolution in term-paper-making. College students had had access to mainframe computers for a while by then, but in those four years, the computer had drastically shrunk in size and price. A little company called Apple was making "personal" computers that didn't require you to learn a priestly language to use them.
My parents gave me a Mac Plus as a graduation present. This computer looked like a small industrial trash can, had a screen the size of a wallet, and lacked even a single byte of built-in memory.
I loved it. It was my most precious possession. Of course, it didn't do very much. In the beginning, as business students will remember from a now-famous case study, Apple hamstrung itself by failing to open its doors to outside software developers. There were only two programs for the Mac Plus: MacWrite and MacDraw.
But two programs were plenty for me. I could write freely! In one beautiful, technological leap, the scale of erasure had gone from a single sentence to every single sentence. Like a magician, I could make a paragraph disappear, only to make it reappear somewhere better, with the click of a mouse. Finally, there was a way of writing that matched my impulsive, associative style. Or perhaps the freedom to endlessly combine and recombine sentences created me as a writer. In any case, it was love at first sight. And a love that has lasted.
Of course, Apple, and its supreme taste-maker, Mr. Jobs, didn't invent word processing. But they made it easy enough so that I didn't have to worry about tending a machine. The Mac Plus let me worry about what I wanted to worry about — writing — rather than computing.
It was a tragic day when my house in Cambridge, Mass., was broken into and thieves made off with the Mac Plus. But there were to be other Apple computers in my future. Each new model — the Mac Classic, the Duo, the Performa, the iMac — expanded the possibilities. I wrote my first novel on the Mac Classic and my dissertation on the Duo; I calculated and filed our income taxes on the Performa; I edited a movie of our new baby daughter on the iMac.
A thread connected each new Apple, a kind of simplicity of design and use that seemed to aspire to transparency. The machines were elegant and slick, but the point of them was liberation — from technical gobbledygook, from machine language, from the compartmentalized minds of legions of (male) computer programmers.
Over the years, Apple computers have helped me draw blueprints; design books; renovate houses; restore pinball machines; improve photographs; remember birthdays; find lost friends; calculate losses and gains; drown in music; make money; spend money; reach out to people; and hide away from them. And, of course, to write, write, write: stories, poems, papers, eulogies, toasts, literary correspondence, grocery lists, love letters, business proposals, columns.
Including this one, in honor of Steve Jobs, showman, innovator, aesthete supreme, whose inventions have helped me erase — and create — to my heart's content.Matthew Olshan is a novelist and newspaper columnist who lives in Baltimore. His website is http://www.matthewolshan.com.