3 Tools for Writing Without Distraction

Sometimes it feels that distraction is unavoidable. Often, I don’t realize I’m being distracted until I look up from my phone and see that the sun has set while I’ve been scrolling mindlessly through social media. Or maybe I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole and spent my precious writing time watching some dude in Indonesia hand dig a swimming pool. And then there are the times when I actually am being productive; I pause to look up some bit of information crucial to my writing and suddenly read an entire Wikipedia article on the history of the Soviet Union’s space program (which is endlessly fascinating, by the way).

These are the moments, largely manifestations of my own ADHD, when my best efforts fail. Maintaining focus and avoiding distraction are becoming more and more difficult as technology progresses. Everything we could ever want to see or hear is at our fingertips. Worst of all, much of the internet is designed to keep up entranced endlessly clicking and scrolling until our brains turn to mush. I, increasingly frustrated with my lack of productivity, consciously sought out ways to avoid those devices and platforms engineered to facilitate my distractible nature.

And so, presented here, are the things I tried to keep myself focused and productive.

Pen and Paper

When I made the conscious decision to create a distraction free environment for myself to write in, I did it the only way I knew how. Convinced that technology was the problem, I went with the most luddite solution: writing things out by hand.

Writing in longhand works for a lot of people. For me though, I was never able to maintain my creative “flow” for long. I begin writing and, at first, everything seems to move along nicely. But eventually, my handwriting devolves into a mess of block letters and indecipherable cursive. Even if I manage to write something decent, I know I will never go back, decode the scrawl, and type out on the computer.

Pen and paper are still useful for brainstorming and jotting down ideas. I usually carry a little moleskine notebook with me in case I have an epiphany while I am out in the wild. But for something more lengthy or polished, writing by hand does not work for me. Still, it is worth a try and you might find that it works as well for you as it does Neil Gaiman.

A Typewriter

I am going to be upfront with you here; I love typewriters. I spent many an hour as a kid clacking away at weird little stories on my grandma’s old Smith-Corona.

There is a special something to a good typewriter. I use mine – a 1952 Royal HH who works like a dream – mostly for short stories and poetry. The weightiness of the keys and permanence of the ink make every word feel like a special deliberate action. Typing on a computer, I make a lot of typos. I will rewrite the same sentences over and over, obsess over a single paragraph. On a typewriter, there is no room for that. Unless you are willing to waste a whole lot of paper, you must be sure of what you’re putting down.

A Royal HH identical to the one I own.

 When I am on a typewriter, I can’t distract myself with the minutia of editing every line as I’m writing it. The slowness forces me to take a few extra seconds with every word before it’s written. I become more consciously connected to the process of using words to translate my thoughts into physical form.

the Alphasmart Neo2

I discovered this weird little machine after seeing the freewrite. The idea of a modern machine designed specifically for distraction seemed awesome. Backlit e-ink screen? Mechanical keyboard? Cloud backup? It all sounds incredible!

Then I saw the price tag.

So, I went hunting and researching, as I do, and discovered the Alphasmart line of word processors.

“What is that?”

Most every time I’m out in the wild, writing in a coffee shop or wherever, someone wil ask me about my Alphasmart. I don’t blame them for being curious, it is an unusual anachronism.

Essentially, the Alphasmart is just a word-processor. A strange hybrid of personal computers and electric typewriters, their popularity faded as laptop computers became affordable for the average consumer. Most of the early word processors either had a built-in printer or a disc drive, or both.

The Alphasmart, having been developed in the early 2000s, has a USB port moving your text files to a computer. But the transfer process is a little weird because there are no actual “files” to transfer in the traditional drag-and-drop sense.  What the Alphasmart does is autotype your file into whatever text program you’ve got open on the attached computer. Google Docs, Word, e-mail programs; it types your document in so there is no need to convert files or worry about bizarre format changes.

It is powered by three AA batteries and, in the three years I’ve been using mine, I’ve only changed the batteries twice. But the long battery life comes with a price; the screen is not backlit. It is a plain liquid crystal display, so you will not be using an Alphasmart to write in the dark.

Despite that, I cannot recommend the Alphasmart enough. It is durable, lightweight, and powers on fast. Not having to wait five or ten minutes for my decrepit laptop to power up makes things way easier when I want to squeeze in a quick five or ten minutes of writing. Usually its right before bed or when I am sitting in a waiting room when I get some burst of inspiration. Being able to whip out the old Alphasmart and just type it out quick is a godsend.

My Alphasmart Neo2 word processor, I use it a lot.

I got mine for $25 on Amazon… three years ago. They are a bit pricier now but they’re still available online for under $50.

So to break it all down; there are a variety of strategies that a person might employ to minimize distraction. I hand write a lot of my notes and ideas, write artsy-fartsy stuff on the typewriter, write most everything else (including this) on the Alphasmart, and there’s a freewrite in my dreams.

Storytelling is Magic

The impulse to create, to manifest the imagination into reality, has been with humans for a long time. Back when our ancestors were kicking around in the tall grass – and a good day meant not being eaten by a dinosaur – we felt the urge. It bubbled up from some hidden place and compelled us to make charcoal drawings on stone walls; conjure up the spirits of man and beast. Crude stone and wood fetishes held the power of long-forgotten animist gods. As we created, as we told our stories, we practiced a sort of magic. Forward now by 100,000 years or so and we haven’t changed all that much.

Communal fires might have been replaced with the magic glow of handheld electric rectangles, but the principle is the same. We gather round the light and search for entertainment, understanding, and connection. But instead of the mysterious tales of our tribal ancestors, we have the entirety of humanity’s record.

Difference is, in days old every storyteller held a captive audience. Where were their listeners to go? Bored of a story they had heard before, there was no portable storytelling machine tucked into their loincloth. The only option they had was to leave the safety of the fire or club the storyteller to death. Likely, those recounting the ancient stories learned quick the magic of what to embellish and what to omit. As they* say, “adapt or die.”

So now, here, in the distant mysterious future world of the twenty-first century, we mash and slide our thumbs against little pieces of glass. Each of us a storyteller now, we shout over the roar of the worldwide firepit, hoping beyond that what we’ve got to say is worth hearing.

But maybe not.

Maybe that person, scraping a hunk of charred wood against the rock, was just doing it because they enjoyed it. Maybe they carved their figures and tucked them away, secret and apart from the judgement of the tribe. Perhaps the need to entertain came later. Or perhaps they hid their work away for fear of being accused of some dark art. Surely the first among humans to witness the creation of art thought they were witnessing something magical.

Maybe they were.

We continue, in the ancient tradition, and pour all that we are into the work of manifesting our imaginations. Poured out, what we create hits the world ocean of ideas like a lone drop of water. Trick is, for me at least, is to let that drop go. Let it dissipate into the vastness and not worry about whether or not anyone ever swims in it.

*the mysterious, elusive, universal “they”