Distracted Writing

Does not work very well

Writing. We all do it, if only email and grocery lists. But some of us teachers want or need or are required to write regularly. And this is not an easy thing for most of us. There are a lot of reasons for that, I think.

Writing is a form of intense thinking, and intense thinking is brain work. As I am relearning, with my piano lessons, it is better to do the new stuff first - requiring more brain work - and fall back on the comfort of known pieces near the end of a practice session.

But there is an important difference between those two, and one that has only existed in the last 40 years, pushed against thousands of years that humans have put down their thoughts in some form of writing. And what is different now is that we do most of our writing on a computer.

I remember when I learned WordPerfect, and made the transition from writing on a pad of paper to a computer keyboard. I had a long flight from Washington, D.C. to Seattle, Washington. I had purchased a book on how to use WordPerfect, from the menu options to reveal codes. I promised myself that I would finish the book before we landed and I did that. At that point, I was ready to make the transition to writing on the keyboard. And I did, and for the most part, have not looked back.

Before this transition, I wrote on a yellow pad with a fountain pen (I still prefer fountain pens, oddly enough) and then typed a final product on a typewriter. Remember those? Magnificent machines. But surpassed by the computer keyboard, the ability to vary fonts, to make immediate corrections, and so much more. The only problem was, writing on a computer forced us into a devil’s bargain.

See, the computer also ran other programs. Lots of them. Games for instance. And before long, Tim Berners-Lee invented the http protocol, and... well you know the rest. We now have massively powerful computers in our pockets, the Library of Alexandria (and more), plus numerous ways to get our thoughts into them, including keyboards.

The distractions available while using a computer to write on are legion. And they even pop up to interrupt you if you let them. Social media is designed to take your attention away from other things and focus on it. Concentrated brain work is very hard to stay with anyway - but when the interruptions and temptations are only a click away... well. It’s just not a fair fight.

Over the years, I have had my struggles with being regularly productive in my writing. Long stretches of time with nothing to show for it. But in the last year this has gotten better. Last summer and fall I wrote three articles, in total, over 55,000 words. Since January, through the requirement I have committed myself to here - writing this newsletter - I have generated over 15,000 words. Mostly crap, I suspect, but I am writing, and maybe a nugget will flop out of this effort at some point. If not, at least I have enjoyed it.

Part of why I have enjoyed it I thought I would share, in case what I have learned might be helpful to you. A couple of years ago I read a review - a negative review - of a product called the Freewrite. It is a mechanical keyboard (so, feels kind of like a typewriter) with a small eInk screen, a WiFi cloud file folder connection, and nothing else. That seemed both massively ridiculous and intriguing to me at the same time.

It seems so ridiculous to dumb down a computer like that, and can you imagine using one in a Starbucks? Click, Click, Click. You would be lucky to get out alive. But I was still intrigued - they advertised it as something very elusive today: “distraction free writing,” and many reviews on their website sang the praises of such an arrangement. Their marketing copy calls it “The Ultimate Drafting Tool for Real Writers.” And then I looked up the cost, and well the price - $550! - not only made the whole thing even more ridiculous, but it also made me blanche.

And then I thought - wait a second, I’ve got an old iPad I am no longer using, and was going to send to Apple recycling, but they offered $25, and that seemed barely worth the trouble. What if I put that on a stand and connected a Bluetooth keyboard? Then strip every software distraction off the thing, and only had Bear and Scrivener, my two Mac/iOS writing tools? Evernote for my research? And nothing else, not even Safari?

As for the bluetooth keyboard, being the geek that I am it turned out I had an extra one of those laying around too. So, except for the $16 stand, that would basically equal a Freewrite, but actually be free.

I am lucky to have a study where I can work, and I have a desktop computer - now an online teaching production studio, with lights and two screens! And it has all the distractions - but I turn my back on it to write at a credenza, where the iPad and keyboard are. Because I turn off all notifications on my phone already (except a small list of family and close friends), I do that on my desktop machine as well. (I aspire to be important enough that I need to know immediately when someone calls or emails me, but alas, I am not that important).

If you have felt the heavy weight of the writer’s block, you might want to try something like this. If you have an old iPad you haven’t bothered to trade in yet, great. If not, you can get a used one on eBay for much less than you would think (as of this writing, there are many available for less than $50). Because it is only doing very minimal stuff, it can be 3-4 years old. A used Mac keyboard is also cheap (as of this writing, there are many available for less than $30). You should be able to get both, and the stand, for less than $100.

Admittedly, this setup does not have a convenient handle to carry it with. It would be a little odd to set this up in a coffee shop, but not as odd as the Freewrite. If you can leave your phone at home, you’ve really won.

May the muses visit you!

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Letters of Recommendation

Staying with the theme of writing, my recommendation this week is a book about writing. I am not someone who enjoys reading much of anything in the Horror genre, but I recognize that the incredibly prolific Stephen King is a master of the form. If I were to read horror, it would be his. However, he has also written a book about writing, called - appropriately - On Writing, and it is terrific. A memoir in part, but it also has wonderful thoughts and ideas about how to stay productive. And, true to form, it is beautifully written.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the contemplative monk and writer Thomas Merton. Here is something he wrote about the why of his own writing efforts:

The work of writing can be for me, or very close to, the simple job of being: by creative reflection and awareness to help life itself live in me. For to write is to love: it is to inquire and to praise, to confess and appeal. Not to reassure myself that I am (“I write, therefore I am”) but simply to pay my debt to life. To speak out with an open heart and say what seems to me to have meaning.