7 July 2019
I work in a variety of places, at standing desks and sitting in chairs, and I try to make every one of those places seem familiar. My day book — a notebook for the day’s notes and scribbles — goes on the left. The pencils of the day, mechanical, German or Japanese, go next to the day book. The laptop in the middle displays the familiar projects from yesterday. The Bluetooth keyboard sits before it. A track pad goes to the right of the laptop.
When we work on screens that display absolutely anything (with hardware that stays the same) we have to work a little harder to personalize the workspace.
When I used typewriters, they did the work of making spaces unique. In Louisville, I used a blue and white portable Smith Corona on a kitchen table to write plays; on New York’s Upper West Side, it was an IBM Selectric the color of putty at a hexagonal leather-topped card table; in West LA, short stories on a black Olympic manual at another kitchen table. The typewriters not only added to the sense of place, they also came with their own story. I bought the Selectric for cash on a New York Street corner. A man in the rain opened the back of a truck and handed it to me in waxy box rimmed in blood that recently held dead chickens. Holding it on my knees on the subway going home, the rain and blood of the box soaking my knees, I knew it would be a good writing partner especially because it was stolen.
To solve sameness in the digital world, I write in different software for different projects. I use Scrivener for long-form fiction, non-fiction, and episodic work like podcasts. Bear is for project notes and research. AI Writer is for quick drafts and essays like this. Day One is for journals. The different interfaces help me shift my focus, setting up cues to put me in a different frame of mind for each project.
Software has become my writing partner, but typewriters make great brainstorming tools. As Julian Simpson, a writer/director in the UK, writes, “You have a different relationship with ideas when you have to set them down on a typewriter because you can’t go back and change stuff. That encourages an ‘accept and build’ mentality and it also means that bad ideas that turn out later to have been good ideas still exist on paper; they weren’t deleted before you realized they were useful.”
When I begin each new project I am standing at the edge of a dark forest. Since I don’t know where I’m going until I start, it’s best to like the tools I have on hand, even if a few of them are only pencils. It works for me to be a sous chef setting out his mise en place.
For an upcoming episode of On a Call With, I had a conversation about the writing process with Vikram Chandra, author of Geek Sublime, Sacred Games and other great books. He doesn’t work with an outline. He writes his way into the characters without knowing what will happen next and learns about the story as he goes. I, on the other hand, am an outliner. I need to make a map before I step into the forest. He and I talk about these differing approaches and he convinced me to try it his way — working without a map, writing your way in. You’ll find out why he was so convincing when you hear our conversation. It’s coming up soon.
See you next week,
(c) Lee Schneider 2021. Take care of each other. Subscribe.