Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Technically, the first computers I knew anything about were punch cards that the principal in the 1960’s used to sort the kids into classes. The edges of the cards had holes or notches, corresponding to today’s X and O, and one stuck an awl through so that only the holes were lifted out.

At seminary (1980) when I was a typist for the U of Chicago Law School, we were on computer “stations” with the hard drive in some mysterious place far away -- like the basement. The directions were complex and touchy, but it was where I learned keyboarding as opposed to typing. I did both and my appreciation of keyboarding (which was only available for senior professor manuscripts) was the insistence of the junior faculty on error-free letters. I am not an error-free typist.

Then a centralized computer system, linked to banks of stations, was made available to students. One unfortunate typed in his thesis, only to have some line length command go wrong: every line was one letter shorter than the one before until it dwindled down to one letter and then zero letters. Talk about your long tail.

When I was teaching at Heart Butte (1989), I fell upon the little Macintoshes with glee. But the administration only recognized IBM as “real” computers and refused to support the lovable little boxes. Nothing daunted, I spent my own money and so did the kids, who learned operation far more quickly than they learned grammar and gave the computer a virus within two weeks.

When I was fired (1991), I invested some of my last money in a LISA, which I operated next to my mother’s washing machine in her basement in Portland, because that was the only three-prong plug in the house. It was that machine I was using when I first went online, making contact with a network of some kind in Dillon which caused me to burst into tears. Then I found the Native American bulletin boards and became Prairie Mary.

After getting a database entry job working for the City of Portland (1992), I could afford another Mac and it’s been slowly newer Macs ever since. I even went to PMUG meetings (Portland Macintosh User Group) and got a discount on discs which were quickly piling up. I was using the hard 3.5 discs at home and we used the bigger “floppies” at work. Then the City went to a centralized Oracle set-up and all was chaos for months. By this time I was working as cashier for the Bureau of Buildings and aware that if the public knew how muddled everything was, there would be lawsuits. When we had earlier developed an algorithm for finding deadbeat landlords and acted on it, we did get sued.

So here I sit (since 1999), retired, at last free to think with a computer that will let me do it publicly, part of a planetary network of affinity groups and linked to a co-writer I’ve never met (Tim Barrus) because he mostly lives in Paris when he’s not traveling. I’ve quit traveling. After ten years of traveling to preach, blogging means the same amount of writing and, blessedly, no driving.

This trip through the past is nothing compared to the shifting world of literature but fewer people realize the changes. This story happens on several levels, like three-dimensional chess, which interact with each other to constantly create new things. The levels I am aware of so far are: content, technical, marketing. There will be more.

In the past "literary" books have been controlled by publishers or sometimes universities. Publishers staked out a territory and provided capital to “feed” books into that venue. The most respected was, of course, in England. Next after that, esp. when the WWII intelligentsia of Europe had fled to New York City, it was Manhattan. Manhattan and the area within commuting distance, like Connecticut or Long Island, became the Wall Street of books. High school teachers who read magazines like Time or Harper’s revered the writers based in this culture and taught us to aspire to it. That ideal was dispersed by two forces: corporation ownership of publishers and Internet impact on sales, which made access to used books practical, undermining traditional bookstores. The diminishment of newspapers with review sections also hurt.

But what has really challenged publishing is Print on Demand, books that are entirely electronic and read on computers, and self-publishing. Also, the shift from physical books stored in warehouses and taxed as property to books as “potential” databases has muddled business models.

Now we are in a position to entirely bypass publishers and are dumped into chaos again. The model is music, which has become the compelling base of younger culture, displacing television. When music went from 78 to 33 1/2 to 8-track to cassette to MP3 and then to viral transmission through the Internet, it showed the way. They’ve taken the ride from radio to television to cable to satellite. At the same time the music went from one genre to another, reaching out to world music sources. We aren’t even close to a “pause” in development yet. Innovations tumble out all the time.

It has escaped some that content of literature has shifted. What was largely a print industry has gone to image: movies, television, computer screen, and now small handheld media like iPhone, iPod, and other permutations reminiscent of Dick Tracy’s wrist-radio. I worry that all these tech innovations will belong to the young only and then only to the affluent young. But street urchins “magically” acquire the devices and figure it out toot sweet. And grandmas want email from descendants.

This has impact. A story this morning says that the simplest solution to the cryptic and problematic nature of police communication -- to say nothing of the public nature of radio -- is simple: cell phones. Which means that plain English works, which means that there is now again a market for someone who can teach it.

That won’t include me. I’m not quite techie enough to make videos, but I finally signed up for DSL so I could watch them. I do BLOGS, which in my case means 1,000 word essays daily. Barrus and Cinematheque do VLOGS, which are blogs with videos embedded in them. When I get enough pretty good blogs, I compile them into BLOOKS, available through www.lulu.com/prairiemary. Now Tim and guys are creating VOOKS which are online books with embedded video. I’m contributing to them in a literary genre called “metafiction” in which part of the writing comments on other parts of the writing.

They write transgressive stuff, wild romance and forbidden adventure -- which is what they know. I drag in high-falutin’ theories and moral issues. Barrus is the interface. Surprisingly, the boys welcome this. They worry about the nature of God, the meaning of existence, how to achieve true intimacy, and where this universe is heading. Don’t we all? We must learn from each other.


Lance Michael Foster said...

Mary, so your experiences with Lulu.com have been good?

I did some research and find a lot of people have had bad luck with them, especially in getting the full pay for their books (for example, read the comments at http://kujakupoet.blogspot.com/2007/03/lulucom-shoddy-and-shady.html)

prairie mary said...

The kujakupoet page has been taken down. Lulu.com is NOT a publisher. They only print by demand. I've never had a problem with that.

Layout and illustrations, etc., are done by oneself and simply posted as a pdf. I've had problems with that interface, but they were my own fault and the problems were quickly resolved through direct email within the program. Final quality has been just fine. Delivery is prompt. No problem with money. Online bookkeeping is clear and up to date.

There have been many complaints about such outfits as iUniverse, which charges from the very beginning but mimicks actual publishing by providing some services a publisher would.

"Publishing" is a SERIES of services that we perceive in a lump. It has to be analyzed to tell what's going on. Happiness is a matter of getting a good match between what one expects and what actually happens. From that point of view, ANY publisher can be problematic.

But Lulu.com is one helpful element for SELF-publishing, the element of simply creating the physical book.

Prairie Mary

Lance Michael Foster said...

Thanks Mary, I was confused by the bad reviews, and that they said you get charged quite a chunk up front. I have thought of trying a couple little things through Lulu and it worried me.

I hear there are also some programs that export your blog and put it into PDF format automatically, so you can import it into POD.

prairie mary said...

I'm on a MAC. My "print" software will also create a PDF that works.

Prairie Mary