Block Writer

I’d intended to work on Vengeance Upon the Dust today (incidentally, I’ve come to dislike that title and will probably change it), but as usual, I found myself too distracted to get anything done. After watching the second half of Hitch, going to the convenience store, and spending some time with DG, I sat down at my computer, ready to let the creative juices flow.

Soon I was surfing Wikipedia and playing Doom 3. Such is the plight of the aspiring writer in the twenty-first century.

And it’s particularly difficult as a novice writer. Without the slightest flush of success under your belt, it’s easy to become daunted by the prospect of ever actually finishing anything, much less getting it published. This train of thought causes one’s self-esteem to plummet, leading to depression and the urge to assuage or ignore the pain by surfing the Internet or playing Doom 3.

When I first started toying around with writing as an adolescent, I wrote on my parents’ 286 IBM Compatible. At that point my use of the Internet was limited to occasionally logging on to a bulletin board to get tips for King’s Quest or one of those other infuriatingly difficult Sierra games. Years later, after my parents got a new computer, I kept the 286 in my room and used it for school papers and other writing projects. I have fond memories of writing on that machine in the days before the accumulated knowledge, folklore, gossip, and pornography of human civilization was just a few clicks away. In terms of writing, a PC was little more than a high-tech version of a typewriter.

In college I experienced my first T1 line and became a hardcore Web surfer. I’ve since decided the Web deserves at least some responsibility for my wafer-thin attention span and inability to get through more than ten pages of a novel at a time. During college I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t watch much television. I eventually realized I had replaced television with the Web. The time I spent surfing was comparable to the average American’s television viewing. I assuaged some of that guilt by telling myself that reading news and critical commentary or looking up information was somewhat more edifying than just shutting off one’s mind to watch The Bachelor. But as mentioned above, my attention span suffered.

But to get back to writing: recently I considered getting rid of my home cable modem. I decided against it for a couple reasons: first, the Web has become my primary mode of backing up data; and second, the ease of Web communication is just too convenient, and I can’t count on always having a free hour here or there at work to write a long personal email (also, I hadn’t even brought up the idea to DG, who obviously would have a say in the matter). I then considered unplugging one of my two computers (desktop and laptop) and using the other for writing, plugging in when necessary to save something. This is a workable solution, but it feels forced and inefficient to me—and it makes it too obvious that my real problem is willpower.

Besides, there are other difficulties to writing on a computer than the distraction of the Web. Back when I was writing on my parents’ 286, if I wanted to edit a line three pages back, I would have to sit there with my finger on the ← key for thirty seconds. So in practice, I just wrote the whole section and later went back and edited it—just like a typewriter.

Now, with programs like Microsoft Word, I can scroll fifty pages back within seconds and rewrite entire sentences and paragraphs with ease. It makes second-guessing oneself a serious problem for the modern writer, and I believe it’s one of the main reasons why I have such difficulty ever finishing a project.

Why not just write with a pen and paper, you ask? A few reasons: first, it wastes a lot of paper. Second, my handwriting is atrocious and tends to get worse the longer I write until it’s nearly illegible by page twenty. Third, I’m going to have to type the thing up anyway at some point. And finally, I learned to write on a computer as an adolescent, and that’s the tool I associate with writing. Writing with pen and paper feels as artificial to me as writing on a computer might have felt to someone fifty years ago.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure, but I think this idea is on the right track. Khoi Vinh’s as-yet-theoretical program “Blockwriter” would not only block out other programs and even Web access, it would discourage deletions, insertions, line editing “and the attendant temptation to continually massage text beyond usefulness.” If you want to delete a word or sentence, the system would cross it out with x’s, much like a typewriter. This creates a messy presentation that will discourage line editing until the second pass.

I wouldn’t mind trying out a program like Blockwriter, which would essentially reduce my 3 GHz PC to my old 286. Of course, a number of the comments on Vinh’s site point out that there is a very cheap, old-fashioned way to achieve the same aims without having to code a single line. It’s called willpower.

  1. Big Guy left a comment on November 6, 2006 at 7:40 am

    Want to try something hard? When you are at home, just hanging out, try turning off both the TV and the computer. I bet you cant do it. Its just too, quite….

  2. I can turn off the computer (though I admit I usually don’t). But I don’t have a lot of say regarding the TV. That’s DG’s prerogative. After a six-day work week of twelve-hour days, if DG wants to watch television, DG watches television.

  3. I have much the same problem. The internet, in particular, is too great a temptation for me.

    So far, the best solution I’ve been able to find is to take my laptop and go to a coffee shop. That has it’s own host of problems (finding a table, making sure I have power, ect.), but it does keep me from being distracted.

    And yes “willpower” is the obvious solution, but sometimes, that isn’t really enough.

  4. Kate left a comment on November 6, 2006 at 9:47 am

    Hear hear for coffee shops! Sure, you really ought to buy something to justify sitting there for hours, but it’s so worth it: you’ve got to get up and get out, and get away from the Internet. And, for me, it perpetuates the illusion that I’m not a wannabe antisocial misanthrope who sits around her apartment–look! I’m getting out and going places! I’m social!

  5. At coffee shops, I feel guilty for taking up a seat and keep thinking I should buy more drinks or food to justify taking up the seat. Then I get fat.

    I actually have a better option than most people—I can go to Widener Library at Harvard and use one of the study carrels. I’ve done this on several occasions. The problem is that it’s so quiet and peaceful, I fall asleep.

  6. Kate left a comment on November 6, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Hence the ten bucks you drop on coffee and a sandwich twice a week–complete with tons of ambient noise!–is totally worth it. 🙂

  7. Well, I drink my coffee black, so it’s not much in the way of calories. Sure, it’s not wonderful for my stomach, but hey…I can’t have everything.

    Of course, I’ve been terrible about writing lately, so I may not be giving the best advice ever…

  8. The “Blockwriter” is a clever concept. I started writing on a Franklin Ace 1000, a short-lived Apple 2 clone that I could barely get to play the Ultima games on due to incompatibility issues (I think Franklin got sued by Apple and went bankrupt shortly thereafter). The word processor worked just fine, however, and I must have cranked out a hundred thousand words on that thing, most of which are irretrievably lost.

    Nowadays I use a Compaq PDA to do my writing. The interface is perfect, as it only allows me to see about a paragraph at a time, thus keeping me from worrying about the big picture until I’ve safely gotten the first draft in the bag. Although it’s theoretically possible to use most of the Word functions when writing on a Windows Mobile machine, practically speaking it’s just enough of a pain in the ass that I’m not even tempted.

    I dread the day, however, when my trusty iPaq breaks down and I’m forced to upgrade to something with more bells and whistles, like a Bluetooth chip and built-in WiFi. But I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

  9. I should add about Doom 3…I generally don’t play it for more than twenty minutes at a time. That is a genuinely creepy game that I don’t really find all that fun. Basically you walk into a room, the lights go out, you creepy around, see some ammo or a power-up, grab it and BOO! some demon comes out of nowhere and attacks you. Again and again that happens. It makes you afraid to pick up power-ups and genuinely shell-shocked.

    It’s scary, yeah, but not really fun.

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