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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pen, Pencil or Quill?

by Melanie Anne Phillips
creator StoryWeaver, co-creator Dramatica

In past articles we've explored the importance of finding your best creative space in which to work and the best creative time to be your most inspired and prolific. Each of these areas can greatly enhance your productivity and help put an end to writer's block. But there is one more area that is at least equal in importance: picking the right creative tool.

Historically, writers worked longhand with quill, for that was the only option they had. But with the advent of the pen & inkwell, the pencil, and the ballpoint pen, writers began to split into different camps.

We all know the classic image of the reporter with the pencil in his hat band, or John Boy Walton sitting in his room with a pad of wide-lined rough paper, capturing his thoughts and feelings. And, of course, there was the television series, "Murder, She Wrote," in which a typewriter is the weapon of choice.

But today, with the prevalence and power of the computer, most everyone tries to write with that tool without ever considering that the choice of writing instrument can have a night and day impact on one's ability to create.

One famous writer, for example, found himself unable to write at all, except on an Underwood typewriter. When he became rich and famous, he went to the factory and bought 40 of the specific model he favored and put them in storage in case they ever stopped making them. Like Disney's Dumbo, he needed that "magic feather" to fly, creatively.

Along these lines, I ran into this very problem myself. It started with a growing frustration and nervous irritation when working on my desktop computer. I'd used a computer for years and been quite productive. But gradually I found myself feeling chained to the desk, as if I was slave to the plastic beast instead of the other way around. After some months, I stopped writing altogether, rather than face that imposing monolithic screen of static on more day.

Try and I might, I just couldn't muster the gumption to strap on the leg irons and commune with the demon machine. And then, I had an inspiration... What about a laptop computer? Perhaps the smaller, less obtrusive, less contrasty screen would get me out of the slump. And, rather than looking UP at the old monitor, I could look DOWN on the laptop.

Well, I spent a thousand dollars and it arrived. Again, at first I was free. I could take it anywhere. I was the master of my creative environment. Then, the trouble started. I discovered that the batteries only lasted three hours. And when it got hot, the fan came on and made a most disturbing hum. Plus, it got hot quickly, especially in the Summer, and my wrists began to sweat on the rest below the keyboard. In short, I found myself unable to write once more.

In desperation, I tried long-hand (but that required retyping later), digital voice recorders with voice recognition software (but that only had 97% accuracy and required stringent proofing, and even small mini-computers like the OZ-750 from Sharp (but the keyboards were so small I couldn't type as fast as I could think.

I practically gave up. I didn't think I'd ever enjoy writing again. Then, in the midst of my despair, an advertisement showed up in my email from Tiger Direct, touting a Palm PDA with a folding portable keyboard. I'd considered these before, but the screen was so small and the units and keyboard so expensive that I hadn't pursued it, burned as I was by all other ideas I'd had.

But then I saw the price! (Now, I don't work for Tiger or Palm, and I don't have any kind of an agreement with them. So, this is simply a story of what worked for me, that might work for you....) The price was $89.95 for a refurbished Palm 100 with a brand new Palm Folding Keyboard, Leather Case that held both units, and the HotSync cradle that lets you import the data into your computer. Well, I just had to try it, seeing as how it was not only my last hope but perhaps the answer to my prayers.

The package arrived a few days later and in minutes I had it up and running. I never had a need for a PDA before and don't use it in that way now. But as soon as I attached the keyboard, I felt as if a wall had come down. Immediately I began writing an article, and a journal entry, and the next chapter in a book I had given up on.

The words poured out, and haven't stopped. It's something about the tiny screen that is too small to see while I write. Rather than over-thinking every word, I just let them flow, and only look at the screen when I really need to make a change.

Even better, it is so portable I can take it anywhere: to the hairdresser, to the neighbor's for dinner, to the doctor's office. No more down time. The whole thing, keyboard included, is about the size of a paperback version of War and Peace, so it fits right in my purse. That way, I can open it up in seconds and input a creative notion whenever and wherever the Muse strikes!

And the best part of all is that once I broke the creative block with my little Palm Pilot, I found I could return to both the laptop and desktop and feel master of the machines, rather than servant.

Well, the Palm has worked for me, but I suspect each author has a writing tool that chooses him or her, just as Harry Potter's wand chose him. The important thing is not to take that choice for granted, but to look at all the options, try them out, and settle on the one that works best for you.

And, down the line, if you find yourself getting stuck, consider not only your creative space (which may need revamping) and your creative time (which may have changed) but also the other tools, one of which may be the need lightning rod for your author's soul.

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