Can “Distraction-Free” Devices Change the Way We Write? – The New Yorker
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For a long time, I believed that my only hope of becoming a professional writer was to find the perfect tool. A few months into my career as a book critic, I’d already run up against the limits of my productivity, and, like many others before me, I pinned the blame on Microsoft Word. Each time I opened a draft, I seemed to lose my bearings, scrolling from top to bottom and alighting on far-flung sentences at random. I found and replaced, wrote and rewrote; the program made fiddling easy and finishing next to impossible.
I’d fallen into the trap that the philosopher Jacques Derrida identified in an interview from the mid-nineties. “With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy,” he complained. “An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already on the horizon.” Derrida hadn’t even contended with the sirens of online life, which were driving writer friends to buy disconnected laptops or to quarantine their smartphones in storage bins with timed locks. Zadie Smith touted Freedom, a subscription service that cut off the user’s devices—a chastity belt for procrastinators.
I tried “distraction-free” writing apps that encouraged mindfulness, disabled the backspace key, or, in a few extreme cases, threatened to delete everything if I took my hands off the keyboard (Write or Die). Later, I tried coding my own writing tools, a hobby as rewarding as it was ineffective. The experiments gradually meshed into a literary Rube Goldberg machine, a teetering assemblage of Scriveners and SimpleTexts that left me perpetually uncertain of which thought I’d written down where. Longhand was a luxury I couldn’t afford: Wendell Berry boasted in Harper’s that he didn’t need a computer, because he had a wife, but I was a mere urban freelancer, whose boyfriend had a job. So I continued the search for word processing’s Excalibur, a perfect union of consciousness and composition.
Then, in the late twenty-teens, focussed writing tools started cropping up everywhere. Distraction-free text editors stormed the productivity section of the Apple Store. The Times recommended a Tom Hanks-sponsored typewriter simulation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). A Detroit company Kickstarted a “smart” typewriter that cost more than five hundred dollars. The movement seemed to crest in the first months of the pandemic, as writers newly intimate with the routines of spouses and roommates—or with their own restlessness—sought peace with newfound desperation. I was suddenly deluged with ads for “the world’s thinnest tablet,” which …….