A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 8: Regarding My Pretensions About Word Processors and My Unrequited Love Affair With The Alphasmart Neo

The words pretentious and writer seem to go together quite a bit. The first word is often used to describe people who title themselves to be the second word. That’s probably not a surprise, considering that many consider writing as an intellectual exercise (which it is to a point) and something that only an elite few ever do, much less do well.

f I ever believed that, teaching writing cured me of that belief, at least.

However, as a younger man (say, of the Volume I or even Volume II era), I would have to say that I had at least a few of those pretentious attitudes myself. At one point, I confess that I considered myself to be a literary writer and had fantasies of putting together a future Pulitzer or National Book Award winner. I spent years of forcing myself to read Jonathan Frazen and David Foster Wallace and trying but failing to force myself to like their work. I eventually realized that there was no way I would ever be a literary writer if I had no interest whatsoever in reading that type of work. So, I’m a genre guy through and through, trying thrillers, sports dramas, and now dipping my toe in fantasy.

I’ve had pretensions about other aspects of writing, however. Just a little while ago, I mentioned how much attention I paid to notebooks. I’m shocked that I’m not someone who was into collecting fancy pens, even though my dad got me a few of those when I was younger. I think part of it was it was always a pain to try and get refills for those pens, so they’d often stay dry. And although you can always keep old notebooks around and revisit what you wrote in them, used pens don’t have any equivalent value.

But if you think I was pretentious about that, wait until I get into keyboards.

I told you before about how I was obsessed with typewriters as a kid. I’m the years since, I’ve gotten to be more comfortable with the electronic medium because it is a lot easier to revise and edit without having to rely on whiteout and correction tape. Plus, you don’t have to have access to a copy machine to make more than one copy of your manuscript.

It was when I was making my one serious attempt to compete in National Novel Writing Month when I first learned of the Alphasmart. I had bought Chris Baty’s book about the competition and he had talked about the Alphasmart in his book as an alternative to a traditional desktop computer or a laptop.

The more I started reading about this machine, the more I fell in love with it. A word processor that only needed three AA batteries to work? A simple on-off switch that would have you up and typing in a second? A machine that automatically saved your work as you typed? A word processor that wouldn’t distract me with games or the Internet, but I could download my work onto a PC? Something that helped me fight my lifelong battle with procrastination? I was hooked, readers.

So, I bought my Alphasmart – actually an Alphasmart Neo – in the mid-auguts. It immediately got a workout as I used it for my pitifully modest freelance journalism work for some Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois newspapers. I used it once or twice for my burgeoning teaching career. I even used it to actually write some stuff, but at the end of my “young man” portion of my life, I took a long hiatus from any fiction writing. Honestly, I think I suffered more than a little mentally by taking that break.

By the time I had finally begun to try and pull my head out of my rear and begin to take writing seriously again, my poor, durable Neo was no longer among the living. It had gotten some screen damage and was, sadly, unusable. And I was despairing of getting another. The last Alphasmart in production, the Neo 2, was discontinued in 2014 and its parent company, Renaissance, no longer provides services for it.

However, the machine never left my mind, and there are a lot of them out there on the used and resale market. A few weeks ago, I found this honey online and… well, reader, I had to have it.

My Alphasmart Neo 2 sitting in my breezeway. Photo credit: Me.

It’s as nice as I remember it. I got a USB cord to download stuff from it to my current laptop. I’m trying to treat it with kid gloves because… well, I want to keep it going for a long while this time.

And it is useful. Writing on an old Mac would seem to be a disaster in waiting. I’m also not going to be like Frazen and remove my modem from my computer – I need to update the thing sometime. So, I want to preserve what I have.

Then again, I went online and saw this new device, Freewrite. It looks so sweet, and they’re still making it…

Sometimes, old habits are hard to break.

[I was debating whether to call this a Volume II or Volume III post. For those not following along, my Volume I posts cover when I was a kid, Volume II when I was a young man, and Volume III is about middle-aged me now trying to be consistently serious about my writing. Since what I’m about to talk about began during my young guy days, I’m deciding this post gets a Volume II designation.]

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