Essay: Writing Tools / Spaces / Habits

Where and what I use to write seems to impact how I do it.

It’s not like I don’t have other things I should be doing — assignments, book edits, literally anything else instead of writing an extraneous newsletter. But I can’t think about those things because suddenly everything is different. I’m typing on a new laptop.

This is my fault, of course. I had been using a Macbook Air that I bought in 2013 and I lost the remaining power cord, which was probably itself a third-party replacement. Then my girlfriend requisitioned her spare charger, too, for some reason like doing work, I don’t know. The vintage laptop was gradually falling apart anyway, its hard drive always too full, prone to sudden battery drainages, unable to keep more than a few documents open at a time. I even bought a new Macbook Air last December but I had barely even opened the box except to make sure it was there.

Why — why did I spend more than a thousand dollars on a machine for doing work and just let it sit on a shelf? Simple. Like many writers I’m breathtakingly paranoid about how I write. I didn’t want to give up the old laptop that I typed out so many stories on, that I used to draft my entire book manuscript. It seemed wrong to give it up, like putting a beloved pet to sleep before it died of natural causes. Shouldn’t the laptop be allowed to run until it can truly run no more?

I probably would have used it until some catastrophic emergency occurred and destroyed all my files. But now I’m on the new one. The screen is higher definition, apparently, with more pixels than my eyes can apprehend. The keys are so much worse, though. They feel like pushing rubber buttons on a janky video-game controller and they sound like a chattering mole-creature or an alien made of rocks in an underfunded Marvel movie. The headphone jack is on the right side instead of the left (at least there still is one?). There’s no USB port.

My previous laptop was an effortless tool for thinking. I wrote .txt files to figure out anything from a chapter outline to what bar to go to for happy hour. Over the years I got so used to it that it was a perfect conduit, comfortable (and worn-down) as an armchair. The new version is instead like sitting on a Mies Barcelona Chair: it might look nice but it’s too stiff and angular; it doesn’t conform to me at all.

Or maybe I dislike it because it’s intimidatingly empty, like a new notebook would be for writers who go in for longhand (“unbearably white”). I can imagine that being the case a century or two ago, the writer sitting at her desk prepared to embark on some grand project on the unmarked page but then backing away to scratch out a casual letter instead. Somehow the ground must be prepared, the canvas stretched, some breaking in has to happen before actually writing. Hence this email.

The worst time this paranoia struck was when we opened the first Study Hall coworking space. We signed up enough writers, signed a lease, and moved couches and desks into a skinny artist-studio loft in Bushwick. I had an expanse of IKEA bamboo all to myself, for the first time in my freelance career. Yet I couldn’t write anything. For days on end I just sat and stared at my laptop, too frozen to work on a draft. The anxiety gradually dissipated but I’ll never forget it. It was way easier to just go back to the coffee shops I was used to, crowded as they were.

You’d think I’d get used to it, the changing spaces and tools. It still wrecks me every time. The inverse is true, too — I’m never more productive than when I’m in a space I’m totally used to, where I’ve written plenty of words already. Whenever I hang out with other freelancers, work spaces and habits are always the first topic of conversation. Maybe it’s because without an office or any other structure you have to create them for yourself, and when you find something that works you don’t want to mess with the formula.

Vibe is key — as I tell myself while I stick with pointlessly slow laptops and spend half an hour deciding which cafe is best for the particular moment.

(More book news and actual editorial content soon; clearly this had to happen first.)