I Have Nothing To Fear From Maternal Attention

My mom taught me to be a technical writer.

It was my first job out of college. Her company needed to hire an hourly “contract” worker (temp, no benefits) to read 20,000 lines of Fortran code and describe them in English. My degree was in the sciences, and I had taken exactly one programming course and no writing courses whatsoever. I had no idea what I was getting into.

The pay was just OK and it was an hour commute each way, and despite the fact that our workspace was five people crammed into a 30 by 40 foot offsite “office” I was still expected to wear pantyhose. It was the early 1990s and we were working on, I think, two Macintosh LCs [0] with these nifty 8.5 by 11 inch monitors that you could rotate on the fly to either portrait or landscape orientation. Adobe was the undisputed king of desktop publishing in those days and we produced seven books in Pagemaker, ginning up flowcharts and other line-drawings in Freehand. I thought our setup was the neatest thing in the world, going as I was from typing term papers in WordPerfect 5.1 [1] and sneaking into an unused lab in the biology building to run off free printouts on a University dot matrix printer [2] to WYSIWYG layout design and laser printing.

The few graphics we couldn’t produce in Freehand for some reason we did the old fashioned way— Zipatone and non-reproducible blue pencils and polishing down the scotch tape so the edges didn’t show.

When the next contract came around I had leveled up considerably professional-skill wise, but the offer the company made me was for less money and way less freedom, so I turned them down and eked out a living on unemployment and temp gigs until the next opportunity came along.

Which was at my mother’s Christmas party— I had asked the air in the room if anyone needed a technical writer and one of the other guests hired me. Initially I was covering a maternity leave but it turned into a permanent gig, at least until corporate closed down that office. The work was pretty routine, writing proposals for an engineering company to bid on time and materials contracts. We had a full-time copyeditor on staff and I learned a lot from her about quality control and the importance of details.

My next job— let’s just say don’t ever work for an alcoholic, and leave it at that.

I like to joke that my most salable skill has proved to be the ability to spell “cadmium” and use it correctly in a sentence. When I took that first job, it was in the spirit of having nothing better to do for a paycheck. It was probably ten years before I realized that I’m actually pretty good at this kind of thing.

[0] For five people!
[1] I am still fond of that blue screen and off-white lettering. In fact, I just blew five minutes trying to figure out how to configure Scrivener that way.
[2] It had two whole fonts!

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