How I got into writing
May 15, 2010 1 Comment
I am starting a new practice today called 750 Words. It is a basic web site that tracks your writing output on a day-to-day basis. The idea is that it will help me in my quest to develop the daily writing habit I’m going to need in my new ebook venture.
So, sorry about this, but I am just going reminisce a bit here in the interest of accomplishing my word goal.
When I was young boy, I remember reading books and thinking that this was my calling. I am a writer, I said to myself, and this is what I want to do when I grow up. Well, somewhere along the way I read how hard it was to get published. You’ll never make a living at this, I thought. You have got to find a more practical career and then pursue writing as a side thing. But what career would that be?
I liked electronics and I was always taking radios apart as a kid, so I decided to major in electrical engineering. Never mind that the fact that I was never able to get those radios working again or that my interest in math was pretty much nil. As a result, I pretty much realized that engineering venture was not for me sometime during my my first semester.
I remember when I first heard the about technical writing. It was a required course at Stout, the state university I had transferred to with a major in Industrial Technology. One of my college room mates was grumbling about what a hard time he had getting through the class, but when I read the course description, I thought it sounded interesting. A few months later when I was found myself acing the first couple of assignments, I realized that I had found the “it” that I was seeking.
Fortunately for me, Stout was in the process of starting up a Technical Writing program under the umbrella of Industrial Technology. There were plenty of companies looking for college interns to help them write technical manuals, so I had my choice of gigs after my Junior year. I interviewed at a little company in Chippewa Falls called Cray Research. They built the world’s fastest computers and they had the coolest facilities I had ever seen. I accepted the internship in a heartbeat.
I worked with some very nice people at Cray. They had never had an intern before, so we kind of trained each other. And when I graduate a year later, I had a nice-paying job waiting for me. Good fortune was following me around like a new puppy.
As an intern, I got the entry-level writing tasks you might expect. Most of this involved updating existing manuals for new computer models. You change the specs, insert a new drawing, and once in a while you even got to rewrite a section that was full of passive voice. Sure, I could do this, I thought, but could I really write a manual?
Before I could find out, there was one big hurdle to get past. Cray required all of it’s tech writers to take the CRAY X-MP supercomputer repair training. It was the same three-month course incoming field engineers had to go through.
Now, a computer company like Cray doesn’t hire just anybody to fix their systems. These machines were the fastest computational engines on the planet and they were used primarily by folks in the National Labs for the design of things like nuclear weapons. My fellow students were mostly guys with lots of experience from big companies like Control Data and IBM. They all had degrees in electrical engineering or computer science.
The problem was, I had only one semester worth of electronics courses under my belt, and that hadn’t gotten me past setting up a basic transister circuit on a breadboard. In other words, I had no idea what I was getting into.
I remember the first day of class. They sat each student down in front of 12 big yellow binders in a row nearly three feet wide. The instructor dived right in and starting talking about how the various functional units within the system worked. I had no idea what a functional unit was at the time, but today I can relay that it consisted of a group of circuit boards that worked together to perform one arithmetic function.
That’s right. In those days, a single processor in a supercomputer consisted of hundreds of circuit board modules that worked together. The whole point of the course was to find the individual board that was failing and then swap it out. Not so hard, right? Well, wait until the next entry when I tell you about what was in those Yellow binders: 12 volumes of nothing but Boolean algebra.