post-transcriber-debbie-wheatleyTranscriber Debbie Wheatley

Way With Words.

one miraculous morning I happened upon Way With Words! I can’t remember exactly how I found them, but I do remember with great clarity the tests – don’t we all? My initial reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding! But I persevered and was as proud as punch the day I was accepted into the fold as one of the select few.”


I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, although I probably should have known it would have to be centered around words and stories. My dad was in insurance (the original Man from the Pru) but at heart he was a writer and the soundtrack to my childhood was the constant clackety clack of the old Hermes typewriter keys as my dad pounded out his next novel or play in every spare moment he had.  Clackety clack, clackety clack, ding as the bell signaled the end of the line, ziiiiiip as my dad returned the carriage to begin the next. Oh, yes, and the occasional explosive swearword whenever the typebars got all jammed up in a big bunch. He didn’t have much luck with his novels, but the local recreation centre often did productions of his plays and he also had a lot of plays broadcast on the radio. It was very special, those nights sitting around the transistor radio waiting for the deep-voiced man to come on and announce with great gravitas, This is Lux Radio Theatre, and my dad’s stories would be brought to life by the actors. I remember being very proud.

We also had a blackboard in the kitchen and every day my dad would chalk on a new word for myself and my brother to learn. His coup de grâce was the day he wrote the impossible antidisestablishmentarianism, ‘the longest word in the English language’. And, of course, the Scrabble board was a permanent fixture on the kitchen table. Need I tell you who the champion was? Okay, in truth, it was my dad, but I was always hot on his heels!

When came the time to decide what I was to be for the rest of my life, my dad convinced me secretarial work was immensely exciting. He filled my head with dreams of travelling the world with my boss and taking shorthand in all sorts of exotic locations. Of course, the reality of my secretarial world didn’t quite match up and I found myself stuck in an office all day long. Worse still was when modern tower blocks started going up and I’d be high in the sky in some airless office where the windows didn’t even open and had some tinted safety film covering on them that made the outside world look dark and stormy even when it was sunny out. And white noise truly scrambled my brain.

So began my quest to find my happy place in the world and to my credit, I really did try. First I spent a year in London studying towards an international diploma in beauty. I attained that goal but I had realised almost from the beginning that it wasn’t for me. Who knew it entailed so much pimple squeezing?! An expensive exercise, but at least I was finding out what I didn’t want to be.

I tried office work in Greece on and off over a period of two years, but found the office environment to be the same whatever country you’re in, although it has to be said the weekends were a lot more fun than in Jo’burg, most of them spent exploring the islands. But that was still not enough to make up for my dreary weeks.

At one stage I moved down to Durban and bought a takeaway joint almost right on the beach and began my new career of burger flipping and milk shaking. It didn’t take long for the reality of 16 hour days, seven days a week to sink in, and my mood was not helped by the fact that I’d recently given birth and my poor baby was stuck behind the counter most of the time. I realised we couldn’t see less of the beach if we lived in Johannesburg, so I packed that in and headed back inland. Another expensive cross off my list of things to be.

One of my most enjoyable jobs was when I worked for our biggest daily newspaper as a typesetter. These were the days before computers and ‘hot off the press’ meant exactly that. Oh, my word, how old am I?? My ‘typewriter’ was a huge, clunky affair that, as you pressed the keys, instead of seeing your characters in print, a narrow stream of yellow paper tape would emerge from the machine with a centre line of fine perforations and bigger holes punched into it which represented the keys you’d pressed. Each letter of the alphabet would be shown as a different combination of holes at differing positions on the width of the tape and it was fascinating that after only a few weeks I was able to read these perforations as easily as I could read a book. I expect it’s something like Braille, except with holes instead of raised bumps. My best was the hydraulic chute kind of thing at the front of the room down which breaking news would fly in from the newsroom with a big whoosh; always an exciting time, you’d feel right at the forefront of something big. Alas, the world moves on, computers arrived and journalists began typing their own copy.

I did temping for a few years and I really enjoyed that, perhaps because it was always a new environment, different work, different people. These were the days of word processors and there were a myriad of them around, each with their own programmes, so it was definitely a challenge to walk into strange surroundings and within a few minutes become familiar with their particular word processor, the company’s method of working and the business they were in, and start producing. Also interesting about temping was that people would really open up to me and I was privy to all sorts of secrets. I think it was because I was a temp and wouldn’t be around forever so people felt safe letting me in on their deeply private selves. That’s when I realised that if you scratch just a little bit beneath the surface, everybody has amazing stories just waiting to be told, and I developed a true interest in people and the tales we all have bubbling inside.

For a couple of years I was employed as a trainer with one of the big word processor companies, another position I truly enjoyed and I found I was really good at imparting knowledge, but once again technology came storming in and Windows was the new word.

Marriage for me came quite late in life and we started what became a very successful electronics business. My husband (now ex) went out to do the jobs and I ran the office from home. This was my first real taste of working from home and I absolutely loved it. Soon after the divorce, though, he lost all interest in the business and shortly after its agonising death he boarded a plane to lands unknown. Before that he’d also managed to write off my car so in one fell swoop I found myself husband-less, car-less, business-less, money-less and jobless and the thought of finding a way to re-enter the job market was more than daunting. I became just about immobilised and although I did try some freelance typing and writing copy for websites, nothing I did brought in the money I needed and one very black day I woke up to the stark reality that I was going to lose my house.

Enter my hero, the same baby who had spent the first months of his life thinking the world was a dark place behind a takeaway counter. He swooped in and bought my house so I wouldn’t lose it completely and he and his girlfriend moved in and I moved to the little cottage on the property. But still I had to figure out a way to support myself and one miraculous morning I happened upon Way With Words! I can’t remember exactly how I found them, but I do remember with great clarity the tests – don’t we all? My initial reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding! But I persevered and was as proud as punch the day I was accepted into the fold as one of the select few.

So I arranged my little cottage so that my desk is in a perfect position; on one side my big French doors open up to let in the sunshine and the breeze that moves the curtains lazily and I have a view of the garden and the pool beyond; on the other side of my desk is a window overlooking my veggie garden, so whenever I get a bit tired I can take a few minutes to watch my supper grow. And right now, as my dogs play tug o’ war on the grass with their new toy and two hadedahs stare arrogantly at me from atop the garden wall, and, oh, wait, is that a baby I hear in the distance? That must be my new grandson down in the house, I think he wants to see his Nanna!… So, yes, as I was saying, as I now turn back to my bank of audio files with all their wonderful stories waiting for me to hear, I’m thinking that my whole life has brought me to this place and maybe, just maybe, I’ve finally found exactly what I want to be when I grow up! So, thanks to another of my heroes, Way With Words!



2 thoughts on “Transcriber Debbie Wheatley”

  1. It seems like yesterday we had Hermes typewriters. I had the “baby 60’s delux” and remember taking notes at the UN in NY back in the 70’s – thinking how advanced we were just to press a key and woosh a letter appeared! Lovely and charming story – this and the others I have read so far. So interesting to follow how peoples lives move. Unique blog in this way.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.