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There is a streak of obsessive-compulsive behavior in me, and it has to do with the tools I use. They have to be the right tools, or I don't enjoy doing the work and I also at least pretend that I have difficulty doing the work at all.

In my pre-computer-owning days, (yes, I'm old enough to have had those...) I could not write with anything other than a black pen -- preferably a fountain pen, though roller balls were a reasonable alternative and generally less prone to explosions. I'd use a normal stick ball pen only if there was no other alternative. I would almost rather not write than write in blue. The heft and weight of the pen was important (I like the barrel to feel substantial in my hand) and at least part of the reason I wanted a fountain pen was that I enjoyed hearing the faint scratching of the nib across the paper. And the paper... I wrote only in college-ruled notebooks with white paper because they gave me a satisfyingly-filled look when I'd finished a page. The first drafts of all my stories had to be done longhand. I could not (or at least I convinced myself I could not, which is effectively the same thing) write first drafts directly on a typewriter because the process drove me crazy. I write "two sentences forward, one back," constantly revising what I've just written, and that's nearly impossible to do easily on a typewriter. I didn't want to wait until the page was finished to make corrections, and I became incredibly frustrated trying to roll the paper up for a correction that just occurred to me, make the changes (with my black-inked fountain pen), and then try to roll the paper back down to the line I was on and make everything line up again.

While I loved my correctable IBM Selectric for the feel of the keyboard and the look of the final product, even doing final drafts was somewhat annoying. I could correct individual words, but I would inevitably still be making more substantial changes while I was typing up my final draft. If I decided I wanted to make more than a simple word change three-quarters of the way through the page, I had a choice: I could either rip the page out and start over (which lost perhaps ten to fifteen minutes of work) or I could grit my teeth and ignore the change I wanted to make (because I would not send out a manuscript with my scribbling on it...).

The process of writing with a typewriter was ugly. I hate tools that force me to work in an ugly fashion.

I had the same difficulty when it came to computers. When I decided to abandon my beloved notebooks, fountain pens, and IBM Selectric (for final drafts only), I went and played with several brands of computers, trying to actually sit in front of them and get a sense of how they worked as a tool. This, by the way, was pre-Windows. I had recommendations for a dozen different platforms and word processors from various writers and friends, and I spent a good month sitting in front of demo computers and typing for a few hours to try out most of them... and most were ugly, clumsy tools. I wanted a computer that simply got out of my way and let me work. I wanted a word processor that appeared to be a piece of paper sitting on the screen, with black letters on white, and with editing tools I could understand instinctively.

There was only one choice. I bought a Macintosh.

Over the years, I still have my habits for writing, though they've changed a bit (and still change). I still use a Macintosh: having a real job for many years that forced me to use Windows machines cemented that compulsion for me -- every iteration of Windows I've used has been a truly "ugly tool." Actually, with the Mac I've even managed to fall in love recently with an operating system: Mac OS X.2 is a beautiful tool... as good as a lovely black fountain pen on thick cream handmade paper. I use a Kensington trackball rather than a mouse: because the ball is satisfying large and heavy (and there are replacement balls that are lovely in their own right), because the movement under my fingers feels silken, and because there's a faint scratching sound from the metal rollers that reminds me of the scratch of a fountain pen. Keyboards are important, too -- the keys have to feel right: I actually like keys with a 'clickiness' and resistance to them. Right now I'm using the standard Apple keyboard, but I'm not entirely happy with it. It's not ugly, but it's not right, either. I can use it, but I won't be faithful if I find something better.

I also like tools that are old and loved, that show usage. I hated giving up my old keyboard when I changed machines (but unfortunately had to). Many of the keys had been altered from the original matte finish to a polished sheen from years of my fingertips on them -- that seemed somehow comfortable and reassuring, as if the keyboard were somehow imbued with a part of me. I could see all the books and stories I'd written on it in those marks. If I were a carpenter (hey, there's a song there...) I'd be using that old, comfortable hammer that's been with me for decades with the stained, taped handle that seems molded to fit my hand...

I'm a creature of habit. I know most of this is irrational and perhaps psychotic. I know these are silly affectations. For tasks I really don't care about, I also don't care what tools I use. I know that I can do a task with a less-than-perfect tool or even the wrong tool (hey, I've many times used my stapler to hammer nails in the wall). I know that I could write with a blue pen on wide-ruled yellow paper and do my final drafts on a rickety standard typewriter with a faded ribbon. But I wouldn't enjoy the process... and I wonder how much of my distaste for the tools would show in the writing.

If I love my tools, I also love doing the work.

 

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Stephen Leigh

S.L. Farrell

Matthew Farrell

The Blog

Press Kit

On Writing

Steve's Music

Exit Strategies