Going Solo

When her computer dies, Amy Wink rethinks the writing process.

August 24, 2006

As I write this essay, I am without my computer, a laptop I use every day for work and countless other activities. It belongs solely to me, and is my own responsibility. I adore the machine in a way that might be viewed as sinful by some. Certainly, I have an attachment, as Buddhists might say, to this appliance. My life and work are to a certain extent invested in this device, and suddenly it began to fail: screen flickering, hard drive whirring and clacking. As it did so, I too began to flicker and whir in mounting panic, "ohnoohnoohno" escaping my lips. All my files flashed before my eyes and the work I had been progressing steadily, if slowly -- on an edition I'm preparing, essays short and long, everything I've written in four years, and all my teaching files -- seemed in a dire predicament. Hyperventilating, I staved off panic long enough to burn a CD when the computer stopped its antics briefly. I worked with the same speed I'd used to get to the basement with my cats and dogs one year when I lived in Kansas and the tornado sirens blared at 2 a.m. Panic can be a swift motivator. Just as the CD finished, the screen went black as the drive continued to clatter. Oh no.

The computer did not die, but after several queries, I learned I would have to return my precious laptop to the mothership for repair. I would be without it for at least a week or more. Only a week, but my work was progressing so well. I'd just achieved a helpful rhythm in my daily schedule. I feared the torpor a week might trigger, particularly a week filled with worry and self-pity, cut off from my habitual writing process. The computer was how I wrote! My attachment was dangerous as it now threatened to derail my progress on numerous projects, not the least of which was a manuscript I hoped to finish editing by the end of August. Losing time seemed impossible. I had to push through and figure out a way to adapt, to change the way I was working. I had to challenge my fixed thinking about my writing.

As my initial panic subsided, I saw what I could do alone, independent of my favorite technology. I printed my edition manuscript and pulled out pencils. I found the notebooks I'd kept several years ago and reviewed what I had written by hand using the old technology I reserve for writing in my journals: my Waterman fountain pen. It came as a shock to find that I had forgotten how effective writing this way could be. Used to the exciting tools on the computer -- the thesaurus, the word count -- I'd forgotten that I had written the entire preface of the edition in long-hand well before transferring the draft to my computer. It's not that I never used my pen or the notebooks I cached. I have, in fact, delighted in the sensual pleasures of the flowing ink and the lovely Japanese paper that fills the notebooks. That paper does provide, as the cover proclaims "most advanced quality" and "gives best writing features." I love the way the ink works with this paper but I usually reserve that pleasure for my journal writing, preferring the illusion of speed in my other work. "Work" proceeds more effectively on the computer, or so I told myself.

In my break from computer assistance, I discovered a new truth: writing by hand can make my thinking go faster. This was a jolt to my fixed ideas indeed. As I developed my working life, my writing process, and my consciousness around my adored computer, I had ignored several strategies that worked as well or better to enhance my work. Though forced as I was to adapt because of my loss, the change in my own perceptions of my writing process were dramatic and refreshing. Instead of stagnating, I transformed my thinking. Instead of falling into inertia, I pursued my work, developing new energies as I did so. I discovered I could write 500 words in one hour.

Perhaps my computer had become more of a task-master than I imagined. Unlike the singular relationship pen has to paper, my computer holds all my tasks, so when I open the desktop's folders, my attention remains divided among the projects I must sort through before starting on the one I choose. Putting pen to paper isolates the task at hand to the plain work of putting words on paper. Plain like Jane Eyre, without adornment, straightforward. My computer had become Blanche Ingram, right down to her alabaster skin.

What unnerved me at the onset of my computer failure was not only the loss of files and the dread of expensive repairs, but also the fear that my writing could only proceed in one way: through the habits I had become used to. Of course, those habits weren't working particularly well, but they were familiar, comfortable, and had worked well enough before. At the moment of change, my first response was to seize the fleeing past. I heard echoed in my panic the same excuses, reasons, and rationales I've heard from first-year students on the cusp of change. Desperate to use what had worked before, they stand on the shifting terrain of their transition to college life, hoping that what they knew will work again in these different circumstances, afraid that it won't but not knowing what might. This time, I had to say to myself "I am asking you to work differently." I needed to release my attachment not only to the computer, but also to the idea of my habitual routine, to unfix my thinking. The computer is, after all, a tool of the mind, not the mind itself, at least not yet.

I did press on, and I accomplished much in the days my computer was gone, working with change, and developing new strategies for writing. It has come home now, recovered, repaired, working normally, but our relationship has changed. When the box was delivered, I did not rush to unpack it. I was in the midst of writing this essay, after all, and the computer could wait. Once I reached a stopping place, I opened the computer and began reclaiming my territory. The hard drive had been wiped clean, so I began reinstalling software. Everything that made the machine my personal computer had vanished in the repair, from the notification sounds to the desktop photo. Small things were amiss, like default fonts and colors. It will take time to rebuild what was important and leave what was gone behind. And, of course, I did eventually type my handwritten essay into the computer. I'm not so foolish as to think I won't grow dependent again on this wonderful device, but at least I've learned that a change of habit can trigger more than panic, and may yet lead to new discoveries.


Amy L. Wink has taught writing and literature at several universities. She is the author of She Left Nothing in Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century (University of Tennessee Press). She is currently an adjunct professor at Austin Community College. She is also the managing editor of Austin State of Mind.


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