A Writer’s Silver Bullets

I attend several conferences and conventions a year where an abundance of writers and hopeful writers are present. At these conferences it is very easy to distinguish some of the wannabe writers from the actual writers by how they speak and specifically, by what they are carrying.

Many would-be writers, and it is invariably the wannabes, are carrying an AlphaSmart word processor with them, which pretty much marks them out as a “wannabe.”

Real writers invariably do not carry anything around the conference except a small Moleskine or spiral bound notebook which is discretely kept out of sight. I am sure most writers do not even bother with either of these preferring to just not bother.

The conference for the writer is a time to get away from the keyboard, not be reminded of it. They are there professionally to improve their craft and network with people, not write. Any ideas floating through the ether that they might tune in to can be remembered easily enough later on or quickly jotted down in the smallest of notebooks.

Unless they have entered a writing class or workshop, very little serious writing, by actual writers, takes place at the conference.

I have to shamefully admit this; I internally mock people who carry an AlphaSmart at conferences or conventions.

Whilst you must do everything within your power to be as productive as possible most of the people carrying these devices are chasing after non-existent Holy Grails. They are chasing after a silver bullet solution in a vain attempt at preventing themselves from being sidetracked.

"By getting an AlphaSmart," they say to themselves, "I won’t be so distracted and will get a lot more writing done." Off they go, researching the AlphaSmart or other similar gadgets.

They find what they desire on eBay, spend money on it, wait for it to arrive, leave feedback, and then the device languishes in the box, or they carry it everywhere with them for a few months but do not actually produce anything with it.

I often see people with an AlphaSmart at conferences, carried about like a shield or badge of honour that hopefully, in the eyes of the carrier, marks them out as a serious writer to be reckoned with. But owners invariably never actually write anything on the damn things.

I agree that the AlphaSmart is a neat gadget, and yes, I know of just a few people, and I really do mean “just a few,” that are actually productive with the gadget and use it for the purpose for which it was bought. These people would be productive no matter what they use, they have an AlphaSmart for its simplicity and the fact that they do not want to lug a laptop with them but still want a word processor as they are too slow at long hand. Face it, you will not be productive with an AlphaSmart unless you are productive without an AlphaSmart.

In the defence of people who really do use an AlphaSmart for serious writing I will admit that I possess a very fine Cambridge Computers’ Z88, an old A4 sized notebook computer, which I purchased in 1988. The device runs for several days on four AA batteries. This Z88 carried me through my Higher National Diploma, a Bachelor’s Degree and several long distance travels where I could happily write almost anywhere.

But… never at a conference, never at a convention.

To those people who use the AlphaSmart for actually producing and delivering real value, I salute you. For everyone else, work on your self-discipline that causes you to become diverted from your work in the first place. Learn to create and deliver value regardless of what is disrupting your productivity.

5 thoughts on “A Writer’s Silver Bullets

  1. Just for the record, I’ve gotten a huge amount of writing done on my Alphasmart Dana, and I’ve never been to a writer’s conference or convention. What you’ve said here might be true, but it also seems a bit like selection bias to me – you see a lot of people carrying around Alphasmarts and not using them, but you don’t see them when they’re actually being used, or even a proportional sampling of Alphasmart owners, so you’re giving the wrong impression about them a little.

    And a note on your blog design – where can I read comments??

  2. Chris, I congratulate you on using the AlphaSmart for the purpose for which you bought it but you’ve missed the point of the article completely.

    P.S. You can read comments at the bottom of each article. If you mean, “where can I read comments that I just wrote?” then you can read them after I have clicked on “approve.”

  3. Ouch. I really don’t see a problem with using an alphasmart for taking notes at a writing conference. No different from notetaking with a laptop (although the alphasmart doesn’t carry any battery life worries) and I’ve seen plenty of people do that too. For me, the whole handwriting thing is so slow — if I really want to take good notes, I’ve got to have a keyboard. And the sessions I attend usually prompt some good notetaking. (I don’t write fiction, so maybe those conference sessions are different.) I often wonder about the people that are so discrete that they don’t seem to have any paper or pens along — I’m thinking I wish my memory was that good.

    I agree that the gadget alone isn’t a silver bullet. And there are too many writers out there who think if they just had the right pen, paper or writing tool that it would magically become an easier process. If it helps them get started, more power to them. But if they can’t get past the gadget, they’re not going to get anywhere. And you can tell who those people are at the conferences — and they’re not always carrying alphasmarts.

  4. Rebecca, you got it.

    I do not have a problem with using an AlphaSmart for taking notes or any other writing activity. Z88, AlphaSmart, Moleskine (funny how Microsoft Word 2007 on my laptop changes Moleskine to Moleskin but Microsoft Word 2003 on my workstation leaves it alone), spiral bound notebook or a marker on the back of your hand, the tool you use is irrelevant.

    If a person cannot get past the “right tool” mindset, give up! The AlphaSmart won’t help! The only way I distinguish between “real writers” and “wannabe writers” is that those that do, do, and those that don’t, aren’t. Real writers write, they will be writing on clay tablets, pen & paper, typewriters, laptops, AlphaSmarts or cell phones.

    Wannabe writers just carry the tools of the writer. I have yet to talk with anyone at a conference (several hundred, I even sat in on a workshop specifically for the AlphaSmart and less than 10% of the audience truthfully admitted to using the AlphaSmart regularly at a conference) carrying one who actually uses it for anything other than a badge of honour. Perhaps I am attending the wrong conferences.

    Cory Doctorow has said the same thing, and I am paraphrasing here, but if someone is waiting for the perfect tool before engaging in the activity, they are a wannabe.

    I have used the AlphaSmart, it is a fine tool, but I could not see how it could replace either my Z88 or the various laptops I use for my writing. I gave my AlphaSmart away to an audience member at a conference, whilst sat in a panel, to someone who craved it on the promise they would use it productively. I do not know if they ever made use of it. I am never without my laptop, I am never without something I can write with, it makes the people who hang around with me crazy and I suffer ridicule for it from people who do not know me, but it does not matter.

    Writers write, you cannot stop us. You and I, we don’t look for silver bullets.

  5. Sorry about the comments thing – I guess I didn’t realize I was the first person to post a comment on this piece.

    I do agree that the fanciest tool in the world won’t help if the attitude and the effort to write aren’t there, but I do think that you’re unfairly judging the Alphasmart owners community as a bunch of poseurs who don’t have the attitude and effort to make it as writers.

    The fact is, a good tool can help, both with the practical issues of making time to right, and even give a slight boost to a writer’s attitude if it’s NEARLY at the level of enthusiasm it should be. That’s all I’m really trying to say.

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