The Unicorn of Writing Tools
Nearly a year ago my various book-related internet doings got me ad-targeted with the Freewrite Traveler, this beautiful piece of equipment that promises a streamlined, Insta-worthy solution for the writer who can’t trust herself not fall victim to distraction. It’s a cliché but true: the hardest thing about making yourself write, or do any kind of work involving a computer, really, is keeping yourself away from the memes. And it’s not just the internet. As an editor, when I try to write for myself, I tend to fall into these infinite self-editing spirals that I can’t dig myself out of, until I eventually just give up.
I don’t really subscribe to new year’s resolutions because I’m definitely the type to stick with things for a few weeks, feel guilty for a while, and never do them again. But I would like to start writing fiction again. (I say “again” like I’ve written anything since college, a million years ago.) I’ve been wanting to hop back on this train for several years now. So what’s been stopping me?
First, the self-editing issue. Second and worse, my full-time job leaves only nights, weekends, and federal holidays for my editing work, which I love. So when I do have free time, most often I just want to space out and watch cartoons.
So to get closer to my immediate goal of starting up a daily writing habit, I had two problems to solve: getting more time, and getting rid of distractions, both external and the kind I create myself by constantly rewriting that sentence I just wrote.
Last week I made the wrenching decision to give up substantive editing work on literature study guides. I’d been on this project for three years, and I really enjoyed the work. I read things I probably would never have gotten around to otherwise and I learned quite a bit. But my day job is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future, and I’ve got to make some hard decisions to keep my head above water. Letting go of this project, as great as it was, will free me up not only to write for myself, but to take on more fiction editing projects that I would otherwise have to turn down.
So I’ll have a tiny bit of extra time. That leaves the other issue: distraction. And where most people could probably just muster a bit of self-control, I thought it would help kick-start the process if I bought a tool specifically designed to keep the writer writing. The Freewrite Traveler is on Indiegogo, but I thought it was a pretty safe bet to preorder as they have an older model that seems to have a pretty good following. The Freewrite crew promised a high-quality and great-feeling device with a full-size keyboard and e-ink display that only shows a few lines of text at a time. This keeps you from rewriting until you’re actually done with what you’re doing. It has an automatic cloud save, and it folds into this cute, slim little package. Perfect! They also promised it would ship in early fall 2019. So, telling myself it was my birthday and Christmas, I preordered one. Unfortunately, as of January 2020 there is still not even a working prototype, and apparently they have been pushing the release date back, and back, and back for even longer than I thought.
I haven’t given up hope and written it off as a scam yet, but it became obvious I needed something else in the meantime, or I’d be using not having the thing as a procrastination tactic forever. So I started researching other ways to achieve the same ends. I thought about typewriters. I have a vintage one, but even an electronic one is not ideal. It’s loud, heavy, and worst of all, it uses paper. I thought about longhand, but my handwriting is terrible and eventually I’d have to pay someone to transcribe it all for me (there’s no way I’d be doing it myself).
Google came to my rescue and I found the Alphasmart Neo, a keyboard with a little green screen that stopped production in 2013. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing, but it’s real and it does basically the same thing the Freewrite does. It still has a cultlike following and you can get one on eBay for about $35. So, exasperated by the Freewrite's lack of production updates and ever-changing ship dates, I picked one up.
The low-techness of it is actually pretty charming. The keyboard isn’t quite full-size, but it’s got the kind of satisfying clicking keys that I don’t get with my laptop. (Although the husband complains it’s really loud when I type, so I guess it’s not satisfying to everyone.) It runs on AAs and there’s no adapter, so I’m a little concerned that when the battery runs out all my work will be wiped out. Thankfully, it’s easy and entertaining to save your work. You just open Word, plug in a USB, and press send, and your words magically start typing themselves into the document. I wrote this post on the Neo to break it in, and it wasn’t bad at all. Not the most ergonomic solution, but then again, I did write it on a lap pillow whilst covered in cats. Now said cats are my only real distraction left. I have no more excuses, and I’ll have to start writing. Wish me luck!