During my second semester of community college I took a class in shorthand and typing as an elective. Of all the courses I took throughout high school and college, this is probably the only one that’s earned its keep.
I hadn’t intended to become a secretary – I had no future plans, something, I’ve since learned, that can be hazardous to your health. My fate took a sharp turn when the teacher handed out our first sheet of Gregg shorthand symbols and their meanings: it was love at first sight. I was entirely intrigued by these squiggly lines and curves, and the more I learned, the deeper in love I fell. Eventually I could take dictation at a whopping 130 wpm. When I transcribed the symbols into English prose, I felt a thrill of accomplishment, as if I’d cracked some arcane code. In fact, that is precisely what shorthand is – an arcane code – and translating it requires the same skill set used by any cryptologist. Of course, shorthand was never as respected as cryptology – but what do you expect? It was “women’s work.”
Barely 18, I left academia, propelled by my passion for shorthand, and hit the Manhattan pavement. Within a few hours I landed a job in the Advertising Department of U.S.News & World Report for $77.00 a week. I still remember the names of the two men I worked for, and their initials, which I typed at the tail end of every letter, like so: CFR/ms and PEH/ms. The first thing each of them taught me was how to prepare their respective morning coffees.
And that’s pretty much the way it went: I brought them coffee, answered their phones, and typed sheets of tedious ad statistics. Except for the sex, of which there was none, the secretarial life was the way it’s portrayed on Mad Men — so accurately, I can’t bear to watch the show. Perhaps three times a week one of my guys would call me in and “dictate” a bunch of correspondence (we secretaries privately riffed on the phrase taking dictation.) But they thought and spoke so slowly I never got to fly at my previous breakneck speed, and soon dropped to 90 wpm.
I proceeded from USN&WR to the typical zig-zag employment life of a writer-mother, diving in and out of the steno pool dozens of times. I witnessed the sad decline of shorthand, replaced first by the tape recorder and later by technology, concurrent with our women’s revolution. Both all but wiped out the need for secretaries: now everyone can type. I’m glad we’ve dispensed with the horrific power dynamic of boss/secretary – but much has been lost along the way. Back in the day, for instance, a woman with secretarial skills could move to any city in America (or any country, if she spoke the language) and within two days have a respectable, self-supporting job. Now she has to know seventeen different kinds of software.
When I graduated from secretary to journalist, I revived my shorthand skills – I’m one of the few reporters who doesn’t use a tape recorder during interviews. When I worked at On Our Backs as Susie Bright’s assistant, she asked about the scribbles in my notebook, so I gave a demonstration to impress her. Apparently it did: she never forgot I take shorthand, and last week sent me an email with the URL to a story about a woman in Colorado who transcribes shorthand for a sizeable clientele.
So now, in addition to typing, writing, editing, and proofreading – anything word-related – I am offering transcription services (see my complete list of services on BookBuster, my biz blog). I’m still waiting for the rush of clients, so spread the word.
Shorthand Lives! Vive Le Shorthand!