Squirrel!

Using middle-tech for an Internet-free writing space

I can’t compete. The Internet has won. The amusements offered by the Web are too much and too many for my willpower, and I have accepted that I am not one of the few who can juggle their personal goals against the constant availability of sweet, sweet distraction.

Rather than give in to the invading army, however, I have done what any self-respecting town would do in the case of an unbeatable siege; I’ve blown up the bridges and set fire to the oil in the moat. My office is now an Internet-free zone, and these are the middle-tech tools I rely upon to balance Web-free writing in an Internet-dependent world.

Alphasmart Neo

The Alphasmart Neo is, for all intents and purposes, a digital typewriter. It collects text in flash memory on a six-line monochrome LCD screen, and that’s about it. Because it was originally designed for students, it also has features such as typing lessons and tests. No Internet. Out of the box, it can’t even transfer full text files; the usb cable zaps the text into your word processor as if it was simply typing at 250 words per minute.

The keyboard is pretty great. The display is like typing into a scientific calculator… but hey, this is war, and the NEO is the very embodiment of freedom through limitation. It helps me do all that I can do because of all of the things the NEO can’t do. I bought mine used for $50 (including shipping) on eBay.

I edit and send or post my writing on the family computer in the living room, thereby achieving the Stephen King rule of writing with the door closed, editing with the door open.

Would also work: Computer without ethernet cable/wireless card, QuickPad, personal dictation specialist.

(A note about typewriters and pens: love them, own them. I wanted, however, a workflow that allowed me to make first drafts that didn’t require re-typing into a computer for later editing or submission.)

iPod Classic

New streaming music tools represent a fantastic way to keep abreast of the latest bands and newest releases, and I love that about them. I also posit that it’s the worst possible thing that I could have going on while I’m writing. If I hear a new song that I like, I’m helpless against the urge to track down the band’s discography on Wikipedia and their collected live performances on YouTube. Willpower? What’s that?

That’s why I rely upon an iPod Classic attached to an old stereo system. The original spinning wheel iPod still sports, as of 2012, the largest hard drive you can get in an iPod.

These things are actually pretty great. Compared to later model Nanos and iPod Touches (and similarly to the NEO), it’s what these things can’t do that makes them so ideal for writing time.

The interface, once considered revolutionary, can now be celebrated for being focused and utilitarian. Compared to touch-screen and mouse-driven interfaces, it’s actually a bit of a chore to change artists or playlists on an iPod Classic. That’s okay. The less I can futz with my music system to learn about great new music, the better.

Would also work: CDs, tapes, records, radio, player pianos.

Kitchen timer

You may be a daily word count writer (the NEO comes with word count functionality, by the way), or you may be a timed writer like me. I found the first thing I missed upon not being able to bring my smartphone into the office was the countdown timer app I’ve come to rely upon. A small kitchen timer has fit that need nicely. I even treated myself and upgraded to a five dollar digital timer. Pretty posh.

Would also work: alarm clock, hourglass, sun dial (for the outdoorsy, tunic-wearing writer).

When “less streamlined” equals “more productive”

A laptop can do all of these things, of course, and pretty inexpensively. I could have Pandora playing in a hidden window while I pound away at Google Docs, waiting for the chime of my timer application. I tried to work that way every day for a long time, and many people successfully defend their time against the Internet by employing cut-off switches such as Freedom or browser controllers such as StayFocusd. I’m not one of those people, and I can’t really spend another second bemoaning the fact that I’m not. I have too much work to do.

This one-job, one-tool workflow isn’t the fastest way to go, but it is the thing that works for me. Separating the steps of draft-making, music curation, and editing in a full computer screen means that I can give each step its place and ritual. I’m getting more writing done than I ever have, and I can’t put a price on that.

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