Every day this year I’m challenging myself to publish one blog post and write 1000 words towards a short-story. This post is part of that challenge. You can check out my live word count here and send me encouragement or give me a kick up the rear. You can also check out all of the blog posts so far.
No-one tells you that once you get over thirty life becomes a constant struggle of managing tiredness. I’m tired when I wake up, tired while I’m at work, tired when I come home. That makes finding time to write between feeding the children, putting the children to bed, feeding myself, working, cleaning, and staying awake impossible.
Time management is an unending struggle, and if you want to achieve anything beyond the life sustaining essentials and making sure no-one is seriously injured by the end of the day, you’re going to have to find all the little gaps to do the stuff that life doesn’t want you to do.
It’s the little efficiencies; the prioritisation of tasks and squeezing that extra half-an-hour or fifteen minutes out of every day that make all the difference. And in the cascade of life’s events, unless you make time, writing will loose out every single day.
I used to run a technology website which made enough money to sustain itself; not loads, not enough to live on, but just enough to justify the hours spent creating news articles and guides. But writing for myself on this website and concocting self-indulgent short-stories with no guaranteed payback, is a different kettle of coconuts.
In fact just having this website sitting here costs significantly more than anything I’m ever likely to make on it. So, what’s the point?
Well, it’s for enjoyment. Even if I can’t justify the time and money spent, I enjoy the process, which means in order to make the time available to write I need to find those illusive snippets of time where I can write. So, about a year ago I set about finding ways to make more time for writing.
When you write on a laptop, as I do most of the time, there’s a degree of ceremony about it. True, most new laptops start up in seconds and you can be working away in no time, but you still need to set up somewhere, skip all the email notifications, close the social media website you left open last night, and then wait for that unexpected Windows update which sits at 10% for forty-five minutes before you give up and read instead.
I wanted a device that was as easy as a notebook to open and start writing. For that it needed to be as portable as a smartphone, transfer my writing easily to my laptop for editing later, and it needed a full keyboard.
My first idea was to kludge together a Raspberry Pi, an eInk screen, a keyboard and a battery pack to build my own super portable writing machine.
And I got something which worked alright, but but the maintenance and upkeep was ridiculous, and once you added the battery pack, and the time to tinker with the software, I was spending more time looking after my writing device than writing. Bad solution.
The Search for the Perfect Writing Device
So, my search was on for the perfect writing solution.
I tried various combinations of smartphones, iPads, mechanical keyboards, Android tablets…..but nothing reached the simplicity I was looking for.
I ordered a an Alphasmart Neo from somewhere in South America. This thing took weeks to arrive, but it’s the closest I’d got at that point. If you haven’t seen one before Alphasmart is a range of all in one typewriter machines. They have a small LCD screen to display your text, run on AA batteries, and feature a really nice keyboard.
I think they were originally released in the early 2000s as learning tools for schools — I seem to remember see some a classroom once — but they’ve since been taken up by writers all over the world as a cheap alternative to a laptop.
The only downside is that they are no longer manufactured, so there’s no support or improvements, but a quick search of Amazon or Ebay will show these things are being sold in their thousands for hardly anything. You can even pick them up in job lots and work your work through them.
So, I bought an AlphaSmart. The problem was my unit didn’t work. So, I ordered another, but and the keyboard was damaged. £100 in and I gave up, I couldn’t just throw money at this. I’m sure I was just unlucky, and there are loads of writers who swear by the Alphasmart, but I decided it wasn’t for me.
Then I found the Freewrite from manufacturer Astrohaus. Drool.
For me the Freewrite seemed like the perfect solution…again — a modern typewriter designed specifically to aid the productivity of writers. It’s limited feature set is purely first drafts, you can’t edit here, so you’ll still need a laptop, but it’s an inviting concept.
The Freewrite is designed around Ernest Hemingway’s writing philosophy which says that you should never go back and edit, or even correct a spelling mistake until you’ve finished your first draft.
Being a modern device it connects to services such as Google Drive and Dropbox and sends all of your lovely writing to the cloud ready for editing on your laptop or uploading to WordPress. Great.
The problem was the price. At the time of writing the Freewrite would cost me — an isolated Englander — over £600 by the time it arrived at my door. That’s a lot of money, particularly if you’re not making any money from your writing. There were so many times I visited the Freewrite website, made my selection, hovered my cursor over the checkout button and then chickened out. There was no way I could justify it, particularly as you can get a pretty decent laptop for that sort of money.
There was also the added downside that the Freewrite isn’t particularly portable, and, well, just look at the thing. Imagine going into a coffee shop or library to write with that. It looks like an art deco toaster.
I’m not one to usually worry about appearances, but you’d need to start wearing a scarf, horn rimmed glasses, and carrying around an espresso maker with you. It’s a hipsters dream, and my nightmare.
So, the dream was over, until!
The Freewrite Traveller was announced.
The Freewrite Traveler is the Astrohaus’s portable version of the Freewrite. It’s the same low power e-ink screen, the same excellent battery life, and a good full sized keyboard all in a form factor that’s more portable than both the full fat Freewrite and a laptop.
The Freewrite Traveler also looks less like an American car from the fifties and more like something you could sit with in your local coffee shop without attracting too much unwanted attention.
I wanted something scrappy, something you can just throw in a bag and grab to get writing without worrying about battery life, OS updates and without all the distractions that come with an internet connection and the Traveler looked like it might be it. Had I finally found my dream device?
So, I dropped £220 on a Freewrite Traveler on Indiegogo — it was reduced as I was in the first batch of backers. It won’t be delivered — he said with fingers crossed — until summer, but when it arrives I’ll use it for a bit and do a review of it.
Instead of spending all that money why don’t you just turn off your internet connection?
Any sensible human being will say — surely if you don’t want distractions you can just turn your phone’s WiFi and 3G off; ignore Facebook; or, the more radical solution — just don’t look at your phone.
But! I ask those people, when was the last time you walked into town without your phone? I mean it, when was the last time you went anywhere without being connected? You really need to try it.
We’re so used to the ping of smartphone notifications now that the little pop of endorphins which occurs when we receive a Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, or Snapchat notification is impossible to get away from. It’s a constant buzz of anticipate in your chest that goes away when you don’t have your phone. To deny your brain even the possibility of that little drug boost is so liberating.
Now, unless I specifically need to, I don’t take my phone anywhere with me, and every Saturday morning when I go for my run I feel for the first time that week completely free.
And the same is true when writing, which is why I’m convinced that single use devices — Kindle, I’m looking at you — are the way to go. It’s also the reason I’m using to justify this purchase to my wife.
Sure, it could be hipster bait, it could have a thousand technical faults, or it could be a door stop in a few weeks, but for two hundred quid I’m willing to give it a go.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
See you tomorrow.