writing tools

My Oblique Strategies

So much of writing is about starting. Getting those first few words down on the blank page or screen. Getting unstuck. Solving some problem — a scene that feels stagy or false, a knot in the plot that won’t come unknotted. A character enters a room then … what?

In 1974, the musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt first published Oblique Strategies, a tool for unlocking creative blocks. This was a printed deck of cards, each containing a short, cryptic, Zen-like koan meant to jostle the artist’s thinking and spark the creative process: “Use an old idea,” “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” “Work at a different speed.” The idea was that the artist, frozen with indecision or out of ideas altogether, could draw a card at random, read the mysterious phrase, and somehow the creative machine would stir to life. (You can shuffle through all the cards here.)

I have always loved the idea of Oblique Strategies, but I never felt that Eno’s and Schmidt’s original messages fit me very well. All artists have their idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, their particular ways of getting snarled up. In order to work for me, oblique strategies have to target my individual, habitual ways of getting stuck. It’s like getting a shot: what’s in the needle depends on the infection you’ve got.

So here are my oblique strategies. I’ve never bothered to put them down on cards, but I have always kept a list of them, which I refer to all the time. My strategies are a little less “oblique” than the originals, less out-of-leftfield, because they are not particularly concerned with stimulating ideas. Generally my problem is not lack of ideas; it is an inability to get the ideas out of my head and down onto the page. I have the syrup, as Gertrude Stein said of Glenway Wescott, “but it does not pour.” I’ll leave my list here, for my own reference and maybe yours. Hopefully they will help some writer someday. If not, try the originals or try writing your own.

  • Be professional and productive, not great, not even original
  • Think quantity: the goal is to complete as many novels as possible
  • Don’t overcomplicate the problem — look for the simple, obvious solution
  • Go back to your template stories
  • Always be starting
  • Lower your standards
  • Unplug
  • Take a walk
  • Steal
  • The hero must act
  • Don’t fucking procrastinate
  • The hero drives the plot
  • Don’t be secretive — discuss the problem
  • Work outside your habits
  • Believe in yourself and in your project
  • Get over yourself — your book just isn’t that important
  • Ask for help
  • Make them care by making yourself care
  • The problem contains the solution
  • Stay up all night
  • Prepare slowly and cautiously, write fast and reckless
  • Change speeds: compress a long scene, expand a short scene
  • Abandon the plan
  • Nothing clever or abstract, just simple physical actions: a character walks on stage, then what does she do?
  • Look outward: read books, watch movies. Don’t try to out-think the problem. The answer will be found outside your own head.

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Hemingwrite

hemingwrite-top

I’m intrigued by this new device, called the Hemingwrite. Currently under development, it is a sort of typewriter for the internet age, a simple plain-text word processor with wifi capability that allows it to sync documents with Google Docs and Evernote. That is a perfect combination. It lets jittery, easily distracted writers like me do the one thing we absolutely must — disconnect from the web — while still providing the benefits of cloud syncing and backup. I am not crazy about the over-the-top retro design, which feels self-conscious, but I hope the machine makes it into production, whatever its final design might be. I’d love to try one. For years I have used a variety of devices to shut myself off from the internet while writing: an old, pre-wifi ThinkPad, a simple keyboard device called an AlphaSmart Neo (now lamentably discontinued). This could be a useful tool for gadget-heads like me whose gadgets, alas, tend to get in the way.

Read more about the Hemingwrite here and here.

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George R.R. Martin’s “secret weapon”

I love this: George R.R. Martin writes his novels on a DOS-based computer using a vintage 1980’s word-processing program called WordStar. In this clip, he tells Conan that he actually has two computers, a modern one with an internet connection for ordinary tasks and an old DOS-based, web-free computer for writing. I do something similar, though my work computer is not quite as ancient as Martin’s. I have an old ThinkPad T23, one of the last ThinkPads made without built-in WiFi. It dates from 2001 or so. It has no internet access, and better yet it is heavy and battery life is awful, so it’s effectively immobile — it chains me to my writing desk. I write my novels on WordPerfect, a zombie word processor that I’ve been using since 1984, when my college roommate introduced me to it on his state-of-the-art Kaypro II computer. I have been a WordPerfect devotee ever since. Writers go to all kinds of extremes to seal themselves off from the insidious distractions of the web. I am surprised more don’t just use an old computer from the pre-WiFi era. In this case, less is more.

Hemingway’s standing desk

hemingway-desk

“Ernest Hemingway at his standing writing desk on the balcony of Bill Davis’s home near Malaga where he wrote The Dangerous Summer.” — Life Magazine, Jan. 1, 1960

I’ve wanted a standing desk like this for a long time. (Philip Roth uses one, too.)

Writing Like It’s 1999

John Dvorak had an interesting piece recently on the transformation of computers “from being a mathematical tool used for calculations, to a communications device.”

Initially, computers were used for calculations. The first intended purpose was for artillery trajectory calculations — hardly a noble purpose, but certainly a practical one. In the early days, computers were described as electronic bins. … As the desktop computer revolution developed, the devices’ uses were inevitably based on some aspect of calculation. Spreadsheets were the perfect example. At the time, the only communication aspect of computers was the fact that they could double as powerful aids to word processing software.

By 1979, however, modems and networks were making inroads. They made it possible for computers to talk to each other in some crude way. That was the beginning of the end. The computation aspect of computers continued to grow, but it was the networking aspect that was the disease vector, so far as social upheaval is concerned. You can figure out the rest of the networking timeline. It began 30 or more years ago — 40 years, if you want to count the invention of Arpanet in 1969.

The iPad and smart phones are just the logical conclusion to this trend: computers whose only real purpose is to communicate, not calculate.

Whatever the grand social implications of “the communications-oriented computer” — Dvorak considers it an asocial, porn-proliferating, newspaper-killing “disease” — it has been a disaster for writers, at least for this highly distractible writer.

I’m no Luddite. I love the web, maybe too much. Most evenings now, after my kids go to bed, I find myself opening up a laptop and reading online when once I would have opened a book or turned on the TV. To a natural reader, it is like heaven — an endless library. (Also an endless TV and jukebox, but personally these aspects interest me less.)

That is just the problem: the web is a massive distraction that is becoming increasingly difficult to tune out. Today you can’t buy a new laptop that is not wifi-enabled, and you can’t walk into a library or Starbucks that does not provide wifi. No doubt computers eventually will follow smart phones into a world where all computers are connected to the web all the time, with or without wifi.

The irony is that today’s computers are actually less useful for writers than were the slower, “dumber,” un-networked boxes of ten years ago. That is because writers need to do the one thing modern computers can’t — disconnect.

I hear the objection already. “Why don’t you just turn off the damn internet for a while? Close your browser. Show some willpower, some discipline!”

Well, that is what most writers do. What choice is there? But over and over I hear writers echo my own experience, which is that the web is very difficult to block out entirely, because the same machine we use for typing is also the one we use for web-surfing. Our work tool has become a play tool. Our typewriter has become a TV. What you scolds may not understand is that our work is different from yours. Writing of any quality requires deep focus; long, quiet, undisturbed stretches of time; and isolation — in Joyce’s famous phrase, “silence, exile, and cunning.” Any work that involves serious thought requires some of these things some of the time, I suppose, but good writing needs them all, every day. And modern computers, alas, are designed to create the opposite environment: distraction, connection, zoning out.

What we writers need is a computer optimized for word processing and nothing else. A “dumb” computer that is little more than a “smart” typewriter. A workspace — a computer screen — with no distractions, that does not tempt us to pop online “just for a minute to check email.”

I have found something close in the AlphaSmart Neo, a simple plain-text word processor with virtually endless battery life, whose praises I have sung before. But once I have completed a draft of a novel and moved to the editing phase, I have to use a word processing program, in my case WordPerfect, to which I am passionately, stubbornly devoted. That means I have to switch to a laptop.

So how do I work on a laptop and completely shut out the web? By eliminating all the “advances” of the last decade.

I recently bought an old ThinkPad T23 on eBay. The laptop was made in 2001 or thereabouts. It was a high-end machine at the time, with a retail price well north of $3,000, but I picked mine up for about a hundred bucks. The build quality of these old ThinkPads is unsurpassed, and the T23 is engineered to be light and tough enough for corporate road-warrior types. It has a great keyboard but, honestly, not much else. Best of all, it has no wireless card.

A nine-year-old laptop is not a perfect solution, of course. Battery life is short (I get about 1:45). At 5.5 pounds the T23 weighs a little more than today’s ultraportables. And with such an old machine, who can say how much tread is left on the tires? But so far I am thrilled. To a writer, less is more. I bought this computer precisely for what it can’t do.

I wonder: isn’t there enough of a niche market to support a new laptop like this, which sacrifices processing power, memory, and networking ability for the simpler things that writers and other thinkers value — low price, long battery life, light weight, good keyboard, bright screen? The ideal writer’s computer would have many of the virtues of a netbook, minus the connectivity, plus a little size to accommodate a better keyboard and display. It would be good for students, too. Certainly it would be a machine John Dvorak would love.

Things I Love: The AlphaSmart Neo

What writers need more than anything else is quiet. Not physical silence, but a quiet mind. I can work happily in a crowded coffee shop or rattling along on the Acela from New York to Boston. When I am writing well, I work in a sort of trance. What is around me does not matter. I’m hardly aware of it.

Of course, the human brain resists that sort of deep focus. It wants to wander. We are rigged to notice, to investigate, to root around in the bushes for something good. It is in our nature to skip from one thing to the next. Hey, what’s over there? Maybe it’s an evolutionary thing: a few million years of living in dangerous wild places has taught us to be alert always.

And the web is perfectly designed to exploit this instinct to sniff about. The dope in front of his computer at midnight, his mind fogged, clicking link after link on Facebook or Google Reader, bored and demoralized but still clicking away — let’s not judge him too harshly, the poor monkeyman.

So what is a writer to do? His job is to type, but his keyboard is connected to the noisiest distraction machine ever, the internet (and, to a lesser degree, the computer itself — great toy, the computer). The answer, of course, is simply to look away, to direct his attention elsewhere. To disconnect from the whole ringing, rattling, honking mess.

The best way to do this, short of writing everything with pen and paper, is a little gadget called the AlphaSmart Neo.

The Neo is a sorry thing in technological terms. It looks like a glorified calculator, with a QWERTY keyboard instead of number keys below a small LCD screen. It is not smart enough to be called a computer, nor dumb enough to be a typewriter. It is somewhere in between, a simple, stripped-down computer that can only be used for one thing: typing plain text.

I have been shamelessly pimping this thing to my writer friends since the day I got mine. No more waiting for the computer to boot up or shut down; just turn it on and it’s ready, turn it off and it’s off. No more worrying about battery life or finding a plug for your laptop at Starbucks; it runs on plain double-A batteries which last at least a year. (The company claims a battery life of 700 hours. I’ve had my Neo for eighteen months and have never replaced the batteries, though I don’t use it every day.) No more lugging around a heavy laptop and adapter; the Neo is much lighter that most laptops and, because it has so few moving parts, tougher too. There is no Save button; your document is automatically saved after every key stroke, a process that is completely unnoticeable. The full-size keyboard has a nice, solid feel comparable to a good laptop keyboard. Best of all, there is no internet, no operating system, not even a word processor to distract you. Just a perfectly clean, quiet work space. I know — sit down, the idea of it can make you a little lightheaded.

The Neo was originally designed for use in schools, to teach kids “keyboarding skills,” which I think means typing. Last week, my niece and nephew were delighted to discover me using the same machine that they use in school. (They are in grades 3 and 6.) But the Neo has been taken up by writers of all kinds. It has a devoted online following. There is even a group on Flickr where people post pictures of their beloved Neos, some tricked out in different colors or displayed in exotic locations.

The Neo is not perfect. Porting your files from the Neo to your computer is a hassle. Files can be transferred using a cable or an infrared connection, though I doubt many people are using the infrared link since computers capable of receiving infrared are now few and far between. The cable works well but is unnecessary. The whole process would be much easier if the Neo simply had a USB port that could accept a thumb drive. Another quibble: the LCD screen is not illuminated, so it is hard to read in dim environments. But, to be fair, the low power consumption of that screen is, in part, what enables the Neo’s miraculous battery life — a smart tradeoff.

The Neo is one of a class of machines sometimes called “portable keyboards,” which include QuickPad and the Neo’s slightly more complex older sibling, called Dana, plus a few more aimed more squarely at the school market. But the best, because the simplest, is the Neo.

If you are a writer — and I use the term broadly, to include anyone whose work involves a substantial amount of writing — you must try this machine. It is the silver bullet you’ve been looking for.

(One last thing. To preempt a few questions: Yes, this was written on my Neo. No, I have no affiliation with the people who make the Neo, and I have nothing at all to gain by recommending it to you. And yes, the monkeyman described above is me, though I’m not proud of it.)

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