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What Do You Do For a Living? Me? I Type Really Fast

I may never understand why typing fast has more value in the world than teaching people to read and write.
Cynthia Hoffman

Issue #37, March 1998

Did you know that I've gained three ring sizes in the past four years without gaining any weight?
— Me, in response to Steven Rubio's comment that I was one of the fastest typists he knew.

Consider the irony here, because I sure as hell am: here I am, sitting in a bookstore/cafe, eating a croissant and drinking a triple latte, putting pen to paper to write an article about typing fast. Imagine that. Before you know it, I'm going to admit to actually reading books printed on paper rather than reading electrons floating on the monitor of my computer.

But I digress, and I haven't even really begun.

As I approach 40, I find myself beginning to consider what I have versus what I thought I'd have, or more to the point, what I was raised to believe I was entitled to expect. I suppose this is also part and parcel of having left graduate school without finishing a degree and of suddenly finding myself having to explain to people what I am, or who I am, without the benefit of that wonderful short hand excuse for being not quite really employed: "I'm a graduate student."

I admit right up-front to having been raised with a sense of upper-middle class entitlement that went beyond the usual ballet classes and piano lessons: my parents were a college professor and the first female trial attorney in Sacramento County, California. As a result, I grew up believing that what I would ultimately choose to do for a living would, much as it did for my parents, define me: I am a college professor, I am an attorney crusading for social justice or rewriting the US Constitution in my own image of equality for all. These were the things I was taught to desire to be, as if saying "I am a lawyer" told the world what it needed to know about me but most importantly, as if that designation also told me what I most needed to know about myself as well. I was taught that what I did would define who I was. My parents, I believed at any rate, were the prototypes, evidence that if I chose my career carefully enough, saying what I did for a living would somehow denote what I cared about and what mattered to me. And since I was smart and destined to be well-educated, I was taught and eventually came to believe that I would be able to choose a career that would fulfill my every need.

Those piano lessons, by the way, play a part in my life even today: since I play piano I have a great keyboard carriage which helps me to ... you guessed it ... type really fast.

Yet, as I begin the arduous task of slowly removing evidence of higher education from my resume, having come to the conclusion that it hampers my job search to admit to having done extensive graduate work, I am struck by the fact that what I do for a living is "type really fast for lawyers." After years of feeling less than human for doing this work, but justifying it because it paid for graduate school; after years of quite obviously failing to be either emotionally or intellectually fulfilled by this work; and after finally facing that I was, in fact, the typist I was warned against becoming all those years ago by my professional mother who insisted that even the admission that I knew how to type would relegate me to the lifelong position of secretary (I can still hear the contempt in her voice when she said this), I am finding myself interviewing for jobs where people are asking me questions such as "all that graduate work ... aren't you going to find this work rather ... boring?" And I'm wondering how anyone can possibly believe that whatever the level of education of the applicant, anyone would find typing really fast interesting!

Typing fast is a job, not a career.

When my mother first uttered those anti-secretarial/anti-typist words of wisdom to me I was ten, being taught the QWERTY keyboard on an old manual typewriter in an airless room off the auditorium at my middle school — along with every other latch-key-kid who was left at school prior to the beginning of first period. (Side note: we weren't called latch-key-kids ... that term didn't exist yet. I think what we mostly were was a pain in someone's ass.) I whole-heartedly agreed with her. Manual typewriters, to put it bluntly, sucked. I was determined never to use one again, and except to fool around on an old Royal relatively recently, I haven't. In fact, if the truth be told I don't know how to type at all. What I do know how to do, is use a computer keyboard and a mouse, which is remarkably different from typing. Ever try to type without knowing that carriage return needs to be hit at the end of every line? Not a pretty sight.

If I had a hammer When I first went to college, I took an old Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter with me. I bet you know the kind I mean: portable because it came with a case that had a handle on it — rather like those first portable television sets that really weren't portable but were movable because they had a handle. Ever try carrying one of those typewriters through an airport? I was such a lousy typist my roommates used to volunteer to type my papers for me so I wouldn't keep them up all night. The first time I actually typed anything of any length I was using an old Kaypro computer, memorable for CPM (PIP anyone?), Wordstar 1 and floppy disks I could actually hear spinning. I think, somehow, the advent of computers made typing acceptable. The first time I left graduate school, knowing nothing that made me employable beyond Wordstar 1 and the QWERTY keyboard, that same mother who demonstrated contempt for the secretarial pool that made her job easier, made sure I learned to be a legal secretary saying: "You need a vocation beyond running a copy machine or waiting tables." Notice how the terms have shifted from who I will be to what I will do. We are no longer talking career: we are now talking vocation.

Unfortunately, it took my head ten more years and a serious round of disability caused by ... typing really fast ... to get there. In short, I had to discover that typing fast is damaging to more than the psyche in order for it to become something I could do as a job, and not as a career.

As I moved from my Kaypro to my PC to my Windows environment, as my tempo picked up, I discovered that typing fast for others, once they knew I could, became the expectation and not the surprise extra benefit. That was a deadly combination with my belief that what I did defined who I was. "Of course I can handle it" became my refrain. And I could, for whatever reason, type incredibly quickly (120 words per minute!) accurately and efficiently and since I'm a trained writer, I could edit what I was typing as well. It was my ability to do the job so well which created my problem. Since I'd been taught that what I did defined me, and since I hated what I did, trouble naturally ensued.

Flash forward a few years to a small law firm where I am the lead secretary, pretending that what I really am is a graduate student in order to make myself get up every morning and go to work so I can type really fast. In this particular job, I am expected to do most of the office's word processing as well as the general secretarial stuff I hate, in addition to keeping the court calendar for the entire office. As a result of the stress, I've stopped sleeping nights without anxiety medication, my eyes are going crazy from the computer screen and I am popping Motrin like a middle school teacher pops Tums. I eventually discover that my body isn't designed to accommodate typing for eight hours at a stretch under high pressure as well as typing for a few hours every night to meet my own personal needs. As a result, my shoulder freezes and I suddenly can't type any speed, anywhere, at all. And as a result of that, I lost an identity that I was never really happy with in the first place, but which nonetheless left me searching for who I was.

So, for the first time in my life, in spite of hassles with worker's compensation, dealing with a law office that was hostile to my going out on disability, and my own struggle to accept the fact that I was unable to work, even though I had come to hate not only my job, but myself for doing it, I had the time to discover who I was, outside of what I did for a living. Strange gift, disability.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not Pollyanna. I hate being in pain and a frozen shoulder hurts like hell. I can't stand ultrasound or muscle stim and I hate physical therapy even though I know it eventually rewards me. But for nine months, since I couldn't type, fast or otherwise, I retrained myself to write by hand, by putting pen to paper and remembering what it was like to write when I was a teenager writing really bad angsty poetry and short stories about death. I took the time to retrain myself into thinking of myself as a writer, and came to believe that my words would wait for me, even if I was unable to write by hand anywhere near as quickly as I could think. I have come to like the way it feels to put a pen to paper, and find myself writing that way more often than not because it feels real to me in a way that blips on a screen have ceased to feel tangible.

Since I've returned to the working world, and continue to find employment because I type fast, I find myself wondering why the world values this skill which I think is so silly and which has become — as the opening of this article so clearly indicates — incidental to my own writing life. I understand that law offices appreciate it because it means more billable hours for them, but part of what I discovered during that long disability is that I am no longer willing to play that game with them.

I recently applied for a job at an office which, upon seeing my resume, redefined the job to fit my skills. They were rather stunned to discover that I was no longer interested in interviewing for the "new" job and in fact, walked out of the office apologizing for having taken their time, while simultaneously assuring them that should the earlier job become available again, I would be happy to discuss it with them.

The office where I am now set to begin work likes it that I type really fast, but seems equally interested in maintaining an office environment where if there is no work that needs to be done, makes it perfectly acceptable for me to read a book until there is some. They are also willing to buy me a trackball to replace that stinking mouse. In other words, yes, I type really fast, but since it is my skill, I have decided that I get to choose how it is marketed and how and to whom I sell it.

I may never understand why typing fast has more value in the world than teaching people to read and write; but I have finally come to accept that doing it for a living beats the hell out of waiting tables. And if I control the way I do it, it doesn't have to beat the hell out of my body at the same time.

If only I could figure out why my ring sizes keep growing.

Cynthia Hoffman recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area after an aborted attempt to live closer to her partner in Canada by moving to Seattle. While in Seattle she learned a few new computer programs that have enhanced her resume but she still writes her poetry out long hand. Special thanks to Steven Rubio for suggesting that there was something here worth writing about. Cynthia can be reached via email at

Copyright © 1998 by Cynthia Hoffman. All rights reserved.