(Or, How To Come Home After a Long Day of Writing on the Computer, and Write Some More)
A Distractions & Subtractions post for Eric J. Baker
The computer age hasn’t been kind to writers.
Don’t get me wrong – in some respects, it’s been fantastic for writers: it allows us to use modern software with automatic formatting, connect with other writers all over the world via blogs, articles, and social media, and conduct research much more efficiently. (Does anyone even remember research of yore, using the card catalogue?)
Unfortunately, the computer age has giving comparable benefits to all other disciplines as well. As such, computers have wormed their way into almost every aspect of modern life, not the least of which is our paid work.
Such is the subtraction of horror/dark sci-fi/supernatural writer and satirical essayist Eric J. Baker. Eric actually works as a writer – a writer and editor of corporate documents – which right there screams massive quantities of time spend online.
He writes, “There’s no way around the fact that I have to be 18 inches from a computer monitor all day. It’s an absolute requirement of my job. So, as you can imagine, when I get home, my mind isn’t on firing up the laptop and deciding how to arrange words on a page*.”
Eric is definitely not alone in this regard. As the North American economy continues to become more service-based and our society more digital, increasing numbers of people are spending increasing amounts of their work day hunched over a keyboard.
This manner of computer-based work, for people who come home each day keen to put in time on their writing works-in-progress, thus means spending almost every waking hour staring a monitor.
That can be a difficult way to live. As likely as not, some screen-time will eventually give way, and equally likely, what goes will be the (in the case of Eric, unpaid) writing.
Unless, of course, we can find a way to make “work” computing feel sufficiently different from “non-work/hobby” computing.
The power of suggestion is indeed a powerful psychological process. In this case, we want to trick the mind into thinking that, despite both utilizing the same basic tool, the two tasks are as unique as they truly are in spirit.
The long(hand) and short of it
One of the quickest (if not necessarily the easiest) ways I can think of to battle computer fatigue is, of course, to get up from the computer.
I’ve got three syllables for you, Eric; repeat after me: “Moleskine”.
(Quick sidebar: I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who has pronounced this MOLE-skin. According to the company, there is no official pronunciation, although Mole -SKEE-nuh is perhaps the closest to the products’ native Italian.)
Or if you prefer 100% post-consumer recycled like I do, Ecojot.
Writing stories by hand is a lost art gone the way of letter-writing, making mix tapes from the radio, and so technology sociologists claim, the reliable use of email in anyone under the age of 25. I don’t know how much handwriting you already do in your day-to-day, Eric, but you may want to give it a try at night.
Of course, you could just write on plain bond paper or lined loose leaf rather than spring for an expensive notebook, but remember the point is to make this feel less like the day job. Look less like it as well. To make your personal writing different and special.
If you’re adverse to buying, you can always use bond paper to make your own notebook, and decorate the cover with magazine images, photographs, and objects found in nature.
Mind you, if you don’t do much handwriting anymore, your hand muscles, unbeknownst to you, may have become as atrophied as a crone’s claw. Stick with it; like all other parts of the body, regular exercise will force them back into shape.
A new screen theme
If handwriting isn’t efficient enough for you (personally, I haven’t handwritten a story since 2000 because, no matter how trim my hands are, I can’t handwrite as fast as I think, and thus lose too many ideas along the way), perhaps you can try making your computer screen look different than the way it does at work.
This could be as simple as a change of font, font colour, or page colour. Microsoft Word has a number of built-in, customizable Themes you could use to alter your document headings away from the standard, black Calibri or Times New Roman.
Word 2007 and up also has a screen viewing option called Full Screen Reading, which converts your document into two facing book-sized pages. This might help make you feel like you’re producing your novel in real time, and boost your interest in continuing.
(Note: you’ll have to enable typing in Full Screen Reading mode via the View Options. You may need to enable the Show Two Pages function as well.)
Practice makes perfect
Another important consideration in differentiating your creative computing from your work computing is the nature of your creative computing environment.
If you sit at a desk with a computer, lamp, and phone at the office, and sit at a desk with a computer, lamp, and phone at home, home writing is definitely going to feel like work writing.
To combat this, try making your home writing area a unique and inviting place: get some potted plants; hang some inspirational photos or quotations or writing-related resources; play enjoyable music that is solely home-writing music, i.e. music that you never listen to while at work; have your M&Ms/chewing gum/cup of tea close/etc. close at hand.
The above-mentioned concerns with your writing environment tie in with some important advice I received from Canadian short story writer/novelist Nancy Lee during a writing workshop back in 2010:
Build a writing practice.
That is to say, start thinking about your creative writing as a “practice” in the same manner that some classify yoga, meditation, martial arts, or prayer.
There are many practical reasons for doing this, not the least of which is it can make it much easier to accept – and thus accommodate for – writing as a lifelong pursuit.
In this instance, however, an attitude of practice can also help invoke the same altered states of mind often inhabited by devotees of other practices. Recall that transforming your perception of writing at home is exactly what we’re going for here. Such an altered state is something you can induce in yourself.
Having a distinct transition into your creative writing time is helpful in this. Or put another way, a pre-writing ritual.
For me, I always write in my journal about an hour-and-a-half before I start work on my novel-in-progress. I also eat a couple chewy candies or chocolates as I’m getting started, and listen to special writing music.
For you, you can do any sort of daily ritual that will signal to your subconscious that your mind is destined for a place where it doesn’t permanently dwell, and that you expect the subconscious to follow.
A timely resolution
Finally, put some kind of limit on your creative writing sessions, be it a page limit or time limit.
This should be a limit that is realistic for your physical, mental, and creative capabilities, for altered state or not, a writer only has so many words good words per day, plus you have spent all day on the computer. Your eyes, shoulder muscles, and wrists can only take so much strain, and overdoing it will only see sacrificing tomorrow’s creative output on the altar of today.
Well, Eric, there we have it. I’d love to hear either your thoughts on what I’ve come up with for you or the results of any attempts to try it. Please consider writing a companion post to this one on your blog, or either way, let me what happens!
Eric’s companion post:
Related post (*just in case the emphasis is on the part about “deciding how to arrange words on a page” rather than “firing up the laptop”):
7 thoughts on “Different (Key)Strokes for the Same Folks”
I absolutely love not having to go to work and sit in front of a computer all day. It’s only been two weeks since I left my day job, but I notice the difference already. I’m getting into a forced routine (I say forced because the place I am staying at the moment loses the internet at about 8am!) I wake at about 7am and do an hour of reading blogs and then I write for another two hours and then the rest of the day is mine to walk or shop or clean the house.
I’ve also been ‘forced’ into walking every day. My best friend is recovering from a brain tumour operation and she needs exercise. She’s not allowed to drive a car and she only lives a few blocks away so every afternoon we go for a long walk together (which is really nice!) I’m not sure how I got so off track here – sorry about that!
This is a great post, Janna with a lot of great tips and ideas – keep them coming 😀
Thanks, Dianne. I’m so happy for you that things are working out in your new life. The part I love best is how you only spend a few hours a day writing/blogging/reading blogs, and then you do other, non-computer things. I think that if I didn’t have a day job, I wouldn’t want to spend all day writing, even though I love writing. I’d want to use the extra time to develop other hobbies, or if nothing else, read more books (I don’t have nearly enough time in the day for reading). Going for long walks with friends would be really nice too.
Keep enjoying yourself, and not to worry about going off track – you’re not on a schedule. 🙂
I think I’m just going to sit back and bask in the glow of being a blog topic!
Actually, this was a fun piece and you had me chuckling at the part about picking up a damned pencil. All the stories I wrote as a kid were on pencil and paper, so I should have thought of that myself.
The other advice was good as well, like playing around to get a softer background color on MS Word.
I’ll see what I can come up with for a response. And thanks.
I’m glad you liked it, Eric. I used to hand-write my stories as a kid, too, but I’ve since gone and convinced myself that I can’t write effectively without a computer. I wonder if that’s really even true; it’s been so long since I’ve tried doing it the “old-fashioned” way.
Be warned, though: I meant what I said about your hand feeling like an arthritic claw at first if you don’t already do a lot of writing. Two years ago when i did The Artist’s Way and had to start writing Morning Pages every day, I literally thought I’d permanently damaged my hand with disuse. I eventually got it back into shape, as it remains since I still do Morning Pages every evening (yes, I know), but it was a shocking realization that coming to rely so heavily on a piece of technology could diminish something so basic and human in the process.
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A great ” how to do ” post.
My takeaway is, to quote you, “…your creative writing as a “practice” in the same manner that some classify yoga, meditation, martial arts, or prayer.” I see this as a unique perspective to hold and find it very relevant. Thank you.
Hi Shakti, thanks for the comment. I too found that to be a unique perspective when author Nancy Lee shared it in her workshop. It’s really helped me to prioritize writing in my life.