When Your Writing Gear Goes Down: A downer

Not sure if this entry is going to be any good. However, it’s what’s on my mind, and I figure it’s either write about that or sit and mope around in my living room trying to choose between movies.

I talked about my writing gear before. A person’s writing space can be a pretty sacred spot.

My primary writing space.

In recalling the hassles of this day, I think back not only to the little writing space you see above, but in the homes I lived in the comfortable river towns of Clinton and Muscatine, Iowa. Those homes and my current one have pluses and minuses. (Clinton’s was older and centrally located, but both convenient and inconvenient at the same time. Muscatine’s was big and more modern, but a massive hassle to keep up. My current Chariton house is older with an older home’s issues, but it’s small and cozy, and pretty easy to maintain.)

You want to have everything perfect. It should be relatively secluded from the hustle and bustle of wherever you are living – that is, not right in the middle of everything where people and.or kids and pets are running around and making noise.

Current writing spot – Secluded? – Check X for yes.

If you can keep it private, that would be great. Windowless works, although some writers need to be “inspired” by the nature outside. That’s cool and all, but I can get by without it. It’s really helpful to have a door that you can close. I did used to have said doors in the last two homes that I lived in (one a pair of vented doors, the other a regular room door that actually had a lock. That was pretty cool@.

@- I was also often sleeping in the same room, which I don’t exactly recommend. Maybe some other writers can explain it better. However, it feels like you are mixing too much of the energy of the sleeping room with the creative room and it mucks everything up. Something about the feng shui about the situation throws me off, even though I can barely even define the term and couldn’t explain the specifics of the situation. Now that I don’t have that going on, I think it’s a healthier mental situation@@.

@@ – You’re going to have to get used to these footnotes because I find myself getting into all of these non sequiturs and I’m not too inclined not to include them. I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace’s fiction, but I did like some of his shorter nonfiction.

The Chariton home does not have a door, so it doesn’t block out any noice unless I’m wearing headphones. However, due to the twisting nature of the stairs up to that space and my bedroom, you can’t see my little area from the ground floor no matter where you are looking up. (Of course, that was the staircase where I dislocated my toe, but advantages and disadvantages, I guess.)

Privacy – little x, I guess.

Then there’s the storage capacity of the area, either for writing materials, books, accessories, and sundries. In my Clinton home I had built-in shelves, which was very cool and where I stored a massive amount of books. I managed to fit all of the books into some new shelves in the Muscatine home, as well as some shelves I installed myself in that room#. As you can see from the photo included with this blog, it’s a much smaller space than I had before in my previous homes. But, I culled some of my books, put others in storage, found some storage for some of the books in my bedroom, and we’re ready to go. With the top of that one bookshelf, the portable storage bin to the left of the desk, and the desk itself, I have just enough room for the storage.

Storage – X.

Which makes today’s dilemma a tough one. I turned on my computer after it made a Windows update and somehow my laptop is not able to access the Internet. The update apparently shut down the WiFi driver on my computer. I raged about it for two hours without figuring out how to fix it. I assume I will at some point, or I’ll have someone else be able to do it.

It means that I was writing this in the living room/dining room of our home on a hard chair and an unfamiliar place. But, I got a halfway decent blog post about it, so that’s something.

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.]

Writing Gear: Notebooks

OK, finally getting to this. If there was someone actually waiting me to write this throughout all Labor Day today you have my deepest sympathies. (Joke.)

I might have mentioned previously that I was probably a member of the last generation of Americans not to have access to a computer or the Internet growing up. When I first started to get ideas for writing, I put them down into what I had – notebooks. Basically, collections of paper with a waxed cardboard or maybe a leather cover if someone is lucky that you can use to write down ideas with.

The ones I had access to and made use of were the same spiral-bound, 8.5 by 11-inch notebooks kids buy every year for school and which I still see in my own classroom. Most of the abortive tries I made at fiction now reside in several such notebooks tucked away in plastic totes for safe-keeping.

For me, it was just what I had available. If I was able to get my hands on a typewriter for my room, I would have been all over that. I remember reading about L. Ron Hubbard using two electric typewriters at once to write a book and he would be using one while the other went to the typewriter shop for maintenance. (That was years before I knew anything about Scientology. And no, this is not going to turn into a Writer’s Biography piece.)

Anyways, that was just what I had, so I used it. It would be many years before I started getting desktop computers and laptops to finally start putting my writing together. I eventually strayed away from the pen world, except for when I used to take notes during my journalism days. Occasionally, I would use a small spiral-bound notebook similar in construction to those old school notebooks, although unlike them, they could fit into a hand. With that and two pens or mechanical pencils, I was set.

Occasionally I would work for an organization that would provide their own journalist notebooks that were double the size of the regular ones. They were steady, but a bit unwieldy to carry around with you. Of course there were tape recordings or digital recordings, but you never wanted to rely only on technology to carry you through in the field. If you could get it down on the page, you were safe and not have to worry about missing information.

Years after those journalism days I started wandering through a Barnes and Noble when I found Moleskine notebooks and fell in love with them. Shoot, if they were Earnest Hemmingway’s favorite notebooks, I didn’t see why they couldn’t be mine. I loved the construction of their leather covers, those nice little ribbons you could use for page-holders, and the elastic that kept them closed. Just good enough for a minor writing snob like me (a Moleskine devotee but one who is more into genre writing and sci-fi/fantasy than “mainstream” literature).

I guess I like the classic design best, but I’m also a fan of the really small ones they make as well. Those I can tuck into my pants pockets or even the breast pocket of my shirts or t-shirts. That makes it really convenient to use.

Of course, I don’t write novels with those notebooks, but I often write down ideas for those stories, or on the rare occasions that poems come to mind. Despite my love for new technology (I like the idea of making multiple copies of my works and words) it is nice to have something not reliant on electricity to make it work. So, I have those options always available for me.

That is, when I don’t get on my phone. I’ve got an iPhone 11 mini right now. That one fits in my pockets well, too.

What I Write With

There was a brief time in my youth that, obsessed with the legendary Canadian rock group Rush and Geddy Lee, and bored with just playing baritone horn in band, I fancied myself a bassist. I got myself a grey Ibenez bass and played around for a few years. I still have that bass, even though it’s been a long time since I played.

During that time, I had the opportunity to read a number of magazines devoted to the craft of guitar playing, such as Guitar World and Bass Player. At a certain point in these interviews with musicians, the conversations would inevitably turn towards what gear they used. For the guitar itself, that talk centered on what brands they preferred, whether they had a hand in helping design their guitars (like Eddie Van Halen did, for example), the types of pickups and strings they used, and the wood they liked to use in their guitars. Then they would get into the types of amps they used, what effects and digital processing equipment they used. (Steve Vai, who played with Frank Zappa, the number two electric guitarist of all time, and David Lee Roth, was known to be pretty excessive in his day with such things.)

I loved learning a bit about guitars were made and the whole reasoning behind their design. (I always liked the story of how Leo Fender created the modern electric bass guitar.)

Of course, with my interest in writing, I also would read articles about writers discussing their craft. Usually they were quite informative about the creative process, building plot and characters, and the importance of revisions and editing. They never habitually ever got into any similar “gear” talk about writing that guitarists slipped into. What type of pens do you use? Do you have a favorite word processor? None of that was really touched on.

I’ve thought about it for a while and I think it might be fun and possibly, remotely, informative to do a bit of gear talk here. I’m going to talk about that gear in general terms in this article, while I will go into further detail in later posts.

My Rig

Like I said, my rig.

You don’t need all that much to write, to be honest. I prefer laptops for the flexibility and size savings. I’m not going to need a gaming PC any time soon. You also don’t tend to need a massive desk. You just need a good flat space to put your laptop and maybe a few items to make a good desk. As you can see from the photo, I don’t have too much space but the desk I have works all right for it and fits in the space I have very well.

Software

Ever since college, I have been a Microsoft Word man. This was back in the days when Microsoft ruled the world, and it remains my preferred writing program to this day. I prefer to keep actual copies of what I write in places I can access without having to rely on the Internet.

That being said, however, I do like Google Docs and would likely rely on them if I was beginning my writing career today. There are so many opportunities to safe instantaneously and collaborate with others (maybe being more helpful as a teacher than a writer, but still…)

Also, you need to save your stuff in at least three different places if you want to guarantee not to lose written material. It’s electronic information, you can make as many copies as you want, chowder-head.

Pen/Pencil and Papery

I like decent pens that work, but I like mechanical pencils that are precise and that I can erase. I prefer using 0.7 mm lead because it usually doesn’t snap all the time and it is easy to get.

If I’m writing a lot of stuff but don’t have to worry about carting it around, I like yellow legal pads to get a lot of information down. If I want a notebook that you can carry along easily, I like Moleskin notebooks, the kind that Ernest Hemingway and many other writing artists used. (Yes, this probably means I am at least slightly pretentious.) My personal preference is for the really little notebooks that you can fit in the pocket of a pocket T-shirt. (PROTIP: You always need at least two writing utensils when you are out and about. This stems from the good old days when I was a reporter and you always needed to take good notes when the occasion called for it.)

Like I said, I will talk in more detail about my preferences and the reasons for them in later blog posts. I’m always looking for new writing topics to talk about.