Hardware for Writing
Writing can be hard physical work. Not only are you typing away for many hours, which is potentially very hard on your hands, but you are sitting in a chair for hour after hour. Ideally, you should take a break every 45 minutes or so, but in practice, writing is often so hard that you just keep going once you get in motion. And when deadlines happen – forget about being healthy. You just want to get that piece of work done. The hours can be grueling because it can take years of research to get ready to write, then you basically want to write every waking moment until you get it done, which means months of long days.
I just wrote a piece for this site about my lineage, the tradition of meditation teachers who are my mentors, and how I came to study with them. It's about 14,000 words as of today, August 22. I probably worked on it for 14 hours over a three-day period, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. People were coming and going through the living room as I worked away. Camille left the house at noon on Saturday, and I was just starting to write it. She came back at 11 p.m., along with two friends of ours from out of town who were taking the workshop and sleeping on the floor of the living room. I was still sitting there working on it. I had gone to the gym, jumped in the ocean, came back, made dinner, and then resumed work. I went to bed at midnight, then woke up before dawn with ideas zooming through my head, and worked all morning into the afternoon. Our friends awoke to see me writing on Sunday morning, and I chatted with them a bit and kept on writing. They went off to the workshop, and Camille came home at 11 pm Sunday night and I was still there. In spite of the long hours, my hands were not sore at all, my back was not stiff, my shoulders were relaxed, and my eyes were not tired.
This morning our friend awoke to me writing, and Courtney started remarking on how relaxed I was and had been all weekend. It was impossible to distract me – I would just say hello, get up and dance with them, then return to writing. My focus was so easy that I could attend to the other people then zoom in on the writing process, and they felt that they were adding to my writing, not distracting me.
Courtney asked, "How do you do that?"
The answer is many things.
Coco herself and Rob.
Let's talk about the hardware first, then the meditation skills that let me stay happy as a musician at play as I sit here writing.
First of all, I have one of world's great chairs, the Haider Bioswing. The whole chair is mounted on springs, so you are always moving. Unfortunately, the chair does not seem to be available in the United States, only in Europe
The chair is so supple that it is like dancing, to sit in it. I can easily be doing subtle undulations of my spine, staying in motion, so that I don't get tired from sitting.
I have a fantastic keyboard – the Kinesis Advantage. It is supremely comfortable. It is available in the United States. I have three of them: one for me, one for Camille, and one under the desk as a backup. Each one costs about $300. The keyboard itself is much more important than the actual computer I use. I am continually touching the keyboard, and keyboards can potentially ruin your hands, injure them to the point that you will be unable to type. If you are a writer, it is slightly insane to use a regular keyboard.
The Keyboard Layout (Arrangement of the keys themselves)
The one I use is Dvorak/Qwerty switchable. I type with the Dvorak layout, which puts all the most commonly used letters right under your fingertips, in the middle of the keyboard. By the way, if you are going to do any writing at all, learn to touch type so that you never have to look at the keyboard. The Dvorak keyboard layout is quite superior, and I made the switch in 1998, after 30 years of typing in Qwerty.
The black letters are Dvorak, the little red letters are the Qwerty.
If you look at your keyboard more than once every two minutes, why not just switch to the dvorak and really learn to type? All that hunching over is going to ruin your neck, and that is going to pinch a nerve, and that is going to make your hands hurt. Or something. Hunching over is over.
The Keyboard Tray
The keyboard is on a keyboard tray, which keeps it at exactly the right height and is easily adjustable. If you type many hours a day, you must have an adjustable keyboard tray.
A keyboard tray is an essential. This costs about $200 and is totally worth it.
Footpedals let you put your most-used commands on the floor. They are programmable – just tap a couple of keys, then tap the key you want to put on the floor. to the floor.
This means that when I hit any key modifier – on a Macintosh, the command key the option key, shift key, I use my feet. Also Page Up and Page Down are on the floor, which gives me a second to lean back and stretch as I scroll through what I just wrote. And the Carriage Return or Enter key is on the floor.
These are made by Kinesis. The triple-action pedals on the left, in one unit, plug into the back of the Kinesis keyboard and are seen by the computer as part of the keyboard. These are the easiest to reprogram. The pedals on the right are USB, and can be used with any modern computer, no matter what brand of keyboard you have.
It is important to be able to see your work. Getting a larger monitor is one of the most effective ways to improve your productivity, because you can see what you are working on, see your reference material, and have your notes all visible.
On the far left is Camille's iMac. The other two monitors go with my G5, which is under the desk. On the right is a Dell 20 inch LCD that cost $500, and in the middle is an Apple 23 inch that cost about $1000. They are both great monitors.
So - if you are writing more than 4 hours a day, consider that you really should have the right equipment. You can get a fantastic ergonomic setup for less than $2000, not including the computer. If you are writing, you can do just fine on an old computer.
But you can't replace your hands.
The Computer Itself
My main computer, currently, is a Mac G5 tower with 4 GB RAM. I tend to buy the middle of the line Mac tower, give it lots of RAM, and use it for 4 or 5 years. I never buy the newest version, usually waiting at least a year to let everything get refined.
I typically have 15 programs open simultaneously – four different text processors, an HTML editor, an email program, a web browser, iTunes, iChat, a couple of image or photo browsers, an FTP program.
In the last 10 years, with many thousands of web pages visited and emails received, the Mac has never gotten a virus, worm, or any other infection.
In case you ever wonder why people love Macs, re-read the above four paragraphs.
What you need as a writer is for your computer to be almost transparent, making it easy for you to record and preserve your words.
You can buy a $300 used computer and do just fine. More important than the computer itself is your backup system. It needs to be totally effortless to have multiple, redundant backups of all your work, all your emails, all your notes, and all your manuscripts.
Your Backup System
To be totally relaxed as a writer, able to focus just on your work, you need to know that you have backups of everything. Even if your computer crashes, you can if necessary just switch to another computer, because everything you need is cloned on hardware that is OUTSIDE your computer itself.
For quick backups, get a USB flash drive (amazon link). This is a 4 GB model, which lets me put my entire mail database, and my current projects, on a stable external widget that I can carry around in my pocket.
External Hard Drives
You need to have an external hard drive in its own case, either USB 2 or Firewire, or both. Pay at least $90 or so just for the case. Then buy a hard drive separately. Get the best case – this is your main backup. You can buy them together, but make sure it is not a generic, piece-of-junk hard drive thrown in there.
Your external hard drive system is for backing up your entire system – everything that is of value.
I have 8 or so of these 250 to 400 Gig miniStacks, because they are cute and my wife likes them and therefore likes keeping them right near our computers and is more likely to use them. I keep 3 of them off site, stashed in various places. The others rotate as daily, weekly and monthly backups.
These are OWC - Newer Technology
I bought some of the miniStacks with included, already-assembled 250 or 400 Gig hard drives. I called and asked about the specific hard drive, and approved of the brand. Others I assembled myself, a very simple task. I am a big fan of Seagate hard drives, because they run quiet and cool and come with a longer warranty.
Below is an OWC Mercury Elite external hard drive case. I have four of them and rotate hard drives through them. Two of them sit behind my computer, for the backup from last week and last month, and two of them are offsite. It is very easy to pop a new hard drive into one of these cases. The cases just always work. That is what you need with your backups – total reliability.
Expect to pay at least $300 for multiple redundant external hard drive backup systems.
Several weeks ago, I called a friend to suggest we get together and I'd show him some computer tips. I knew that he just started an online magazine in addition to the several print magazines he publishes. I bought one of the 250 Gig miniStacks for him. He didn't have time to see me and put me off. Then his hard drive crashed and he lost almost everything. This took so much of his time that he has not had time to come over and have me show him how easy, almost effortless it is to have a total backup of his entire hard drive, one that is bootable and portable. He can clone his entire system – everything – to an external, and then if needs be, swap hard drives. Even swap the hard drive from his external case into a brand-new computer and have the brand-new computer have EVERYTHING - every email, every program, every serial number, every file, a perfect working copy of everything.
We are in a new world here, folks, with fast, cheap, reliable, swappable hard drives. Take advantage of it.
Use Your iPod for Backup
Now, for totally hip backups of just your most current data, consider using an iPod. Just tell it to set aside a partition for data, separate from your music and calendar. Then carry it with you at all times.
iPod Nano in white
iPods come in all sizes, from about half a gigabyte, to 60 gigs.
iPod Nano 2GB White $184.99 2GB Black $183.99 4GB White $249.99 4GB Black $249.99
iPod Nano in black
The larger iPods hold a huge amount – they are the size of a deck of cards and hold as much as a portable computer's hard drive.
30 GB iPod $274.99
I bought a 5 gig iPod the day they came out, in 2000 or 2001, I forget. It still works great. I used to have the Mac OS on it, along with disk utilities, and would boot my friend's computers from it and run diagnostics. I used it for 4 years, then gave it away, and now have three Nanos, and a 40 GB iPod with many thousands of songs on it.
The New Cell Phone/Hard Drive
The new phones are starting to come with iPod-like hard drives in them, but I prefer to have my phone be a phone, and keep most of my data elsewhere. That means having two electronic devices on me. I prefer to have the iPod double as an external hard drive, rather than have a phone/hard drive/music player.
Eventually, in years to come, we will all have one device – a phone, camera, iPod, hard drive, and email thingie in one device. But for now, the problem is the technology is changing so fast, with new products being rushed to market, that it is easy to lost entire days setting up a device only to discover that it does not work well, is not reliable, has battery troubles, or you don't like it.
I am ruthless about reliability. Therefore I rarely buy the first generation of anything, no matter how cool it is. I usually wait until the second generation, when the engineers have had time to gather the reports of failures, debug the device, refine it, issue new designs to the factories, get the revised product in production, and into the distribution channels. I did buy the first iPod, but that was a calculated gamble based on my sense of Apple's quality at the time. That iPod was in my pocket continuously for 3 years, was dropped many times, and still works perfectly. I replaced its battery six months ago or so.
For example, I really wanted a Treo. But after interrogating six early Treo adopters, I held off. They were spending too many lost weekends installing all their data, then having the Treo crash, then having to send it back because it was faulty. Some of my computer-consultant friend were on their 5th Treo replacement. Then the Treo 650 came out, and seemed much more reliable, and most of my computer consulting friends have one, but they actually recommended the Sidekick, because it just works. So I got a Sidekick. And it does just work. It's my phone and also does email really well. I have the email from this domain forwarded to it, which is why sometimes people send me a note, "Hey, can you come give a lecture to a yoga convention next month?" and I email back "Yes" a minute later, while walking through an airport or along the ocean.
The Sidekick is probably the best email-on-the go system out there. The phone has its own email address, and uses a "push" technology, meaning I don't have to have it dial in to get mail. It automatically and constantly grabs the mail from the server faster than my main computer at home does. It's been almost flawless in the several years I have used one.
I don't recommend the Sidekick if you just need a phone. Always get the simplest possible device for what you need.
I like it because as a writer, I am continually generating ideas, and I type them into the Sidekick using its very good little keyboard, and send them to my in-box.
For me, right now, this works better than writing my ideas on 3x5 cards or in a Molesine notebook, because the ideas are already in the digital domain and in my inbox.
This is the Sidekick II, from T-Mobile. It is about $300, and will come with rebates that make it almost "free." As you know, the cell phone companies basically make a contract with you saying, "You will pay $50 or 60 or 70 a month for the next two years – you will give us $1200 or so – and we will give you this phone and service."
Apple MacBook 13.3"
Unless you are doing video work, an iBook is all you need for writing, scripts, web surfing, email, audio processing, and almost anything else you want to do. I recommend getting the smallest one – a 12 inch screen. This costs about $1100.
At some point I will get a new MacBook, but I will wait until it is really necessary.
The reason for the 13 incher is that it is so small, you can just carry it everywhere. Then, at home, set up a workstation. Plug a bigger monitor into it. Get a good keyboard and a keyboard tray. Even get footpedals such as I describe above.
What you want, if you are a writer, is something to look at that does not fatigue your eyes, no matter how long you work. When you get on a roll, really into a project, the last thing you need is for your monitor to drive you nuts with eye fatigue.
Sometimes I wind up writing for 20 hours over a two-day period. My computer setup, with its screens, keyboard, chair, and software causes a minimum of fatigue. The hardware is not a problem. That is what you want, the hardware to do its thing well and be transparent and not injure you. Creativity is hard enough without system crashes.
OK, enough about the hardware.
It looks like I'd better make another page to discuss the software for creative writing.
Then i'll discuss the physical routine, the stretching and dancing that keeps my body in tune.