Writing rituals and tools

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gil Adamson talks about the writer's comfort zone, the little bubble of preferred fonts, line spacing, and page formatting we fuss over to prepare ourselves to write:

The point being that writers (and students and nurses and geeks at IBM and folks who work for the government) have computing comfort zones within which they find it easiest to think and write. The first thing you do when you sit down at a new computer or install a newer version of Word is to personalize it. It's a kind of acceptable OCD behaviour. As hard as Word and iTunes try to make us all line up and do the same things on the same pages, to train us to ask for help from a web page not a person, to make the world look clean and branded, just as if the Nazis had won the war, we work just as hard to be... if not unique, then at least different. This prisoner rolls up his cuffs, this one leaves the collar open.

I would argue that writing as a whole is "a kind of acceptable OCD behaviour." What other activity that involves sitting motionless for hours and tapping out a string of characters on a keyboard wouldn't be considered a little obsessive? Future generations of humans who have learned how to communicate subliminally will look back at writers and assume they were some religious cult that worshipped glowing screens by trying to send them coded messages through a mechanical plate covered with alphabetic symbols.

But futzing over fonts and line justification has a dark side too. It becomes an advanced procrastination technique, easily justified in the name of efficiency or "research." I spent a regrettable few years obsessed with the world of "personal productivity," an offshoot of the self-help industry that insists that the path to fame and fortune lies in crafting the perfect to-do list. As an aspiring writer, I did this in the name of freeing up time to write from my daily responsibilities of child care, household chores, freelance work, and bills. Ironically, much of the spare time I liberated from my schedule was then spent shuffling index cards and fine-tuning arcane computer filing systems that would give me more free time to write (come to think of it, those productivity books are like the bowl of salty peanuts at a bar--eating them makes you thirsty, which makes you buy another drink, which makes you hungry again, etc, until the inevitable hangover).

Done responsibly, tweaking your settings in Word or selecting a certain kind of notebook is part of the ritual, the same way a baseball player rubs pine tar on his bat or curves the bill of his hat just so. It's also a way of signaling your participation in a certain community, like the person who leaves a ski lift tag on his coat. You are a writer. You care about these things. That's important, just as long as you actually use them.