Writing Machines & Writing Spaces

Writing Machines & Writing Spaces

A little over a year ago, I had back surgery, and this has changed forever the way I write. Because I can no longer sit for long periods of time, I move around a lot. I have a few places where I write.

This is my main desk, command central, you might say. I have a home office. The picture on the left is what my desk looks like normally. The one on the right is what it looks like when I do a purge.


Sometimes, though, I write in our guest room, which is a pretty blue and the desk looks out the window onto our tree-lined street.

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On days like today, when it’s nice outside, I write on my front porch with my dog at my feet.

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Here’s a YouTube video of my view.

If it’s a cold morning, I write in bed while my husband sleeps. Again, with the dog at my feet. (I’m not going to show you my bed. I have limits.)

Because of my back pain, when I start feeling stiff, I absolutely must get up and move around. I get a glass of water, then move to another station.

2013-05-25 15.04.18 Or I go look at the Idea Wall that my husband made me a few weeks ago. You can buy this stuff called Idea Paint that turns any wall into a dry-erase board. This has been wonderful for my novel storyboard.

I think you get the point. I move around a lot.

I have three laptops with me at home this summer, and because I use Dropbox and Google Drive, I can move between them with no problem at all. Everything’s synched.

The cloud has changed how I think about my writing space and my writing machines. Because I’m no longer tied to one machine or one space, I’m free to move about the cabin and go wherever I want without fretting about my documents. I can pick right up where I left off.

A Room of One’s Own–with WiFi

Where and how do you write? Where and how have you written over the years? And how much does “the Borg” (access to the internet) change how you do these things?

Here’s my personal history.

Pre-1987, I write all things—creative or otherwise—on notebook paper. In high school, I turn in my work handwritten.

1987-1988, freshman year of college, I type my papers on a little electric typewriter because my college doesn’t yet have computer/word processors for students.

zoom_s_p_21934_1_jpg1988-1989, I type my work on an IBM Wheelwriter, which looks like a typewriter, but has a two-line LCD display screen and a disk drive, which allows you to type your work, edit it via the display, and then—when it’s just right—hit print. I am speechless with excitement about this invention. Maybe the revolution will not be televised, but it will be word-processorized! Of course, I can’t afford one of these machines, but someone on my floor has one and lends it out generously, as long as we chip in for replacement ribbon cartridges.

1989-90. It’s somewhere around this time that a computer lab opens in the basement of the college library. The room looks a little like this. Actually, I look a lot like the girl in that photo. For roughly 2000 students, the college provides about 50 computers which look a little like this. When you print your work, it comes out on a printer like this. You save your documents on 8-inch disks, like this. These computers are strictly word processors. No internet. No games. No discussion board. Nothing but typing, maybe some backspacing and deleting. Sometimes, you might put words in italics or bold. But that’s it. There is only one font. I take a lot of creative writing classes my junior year, and so I spend a great deal of time in the computer lab, listening to my Walkman, trying to drown out the tap tap tapping. When I need to take a writing break, I step into the smoking study lounge (amazingly, yes, our library had a smoking study lounge) to grab a cig and think a bit and drink a diet coke.

home-comp1990-1991. My roommate’s dad gives her a personal computer, an IBM, which looks a little like this, and a little dot matrix printer. Basically, it’s the same computer they have at the library, but now I don’t have to schlep over to the library in subzero weather, which means that I can now put off writing papers and stories until absolutely the last minute, because as long as my roommate doesn’t need to use the computer, I can pull an all nighter. This was a  significant evolutionary (or de-evolutionary) step in my writing life. Fer sure. .

1991-1994. My roommate’s father sells me this same computer and printer for $500, and I take it with me to the University of Alabama. I write many stories on this machine until it dies, taking with it my 25-page research paper for my Gothic Imagination seminar. I buy a Gateway 2000, which looks like this and is internet ready. There isn’t a whole lot of internet at this point. I can’t even remember how we found anything, how we searched. Anyway, this is what it looked like. Around this time, Alabama assigns everyone an email account, but you can’t check it from home, only at school, and most faculty refuse to use email, and so most communication continues to transpire via paper memos in your English Department mailbox, which I check about as frequently as I now check my email.

floppy81994-1997. More years at Alabama. Still using the old Gateway 2000, although they are phasing out the whole futuristic “2000” moniker since it will very soon be the year 2000. Anyway, it’s during the summer of 1994, on the Gateway 2000 machine, that I have my first prolonged spurt of writerly productivity: 2 pages a day all summer long. Every morning, I get up and write two or three pages. Sometimes this takes 30 minutes. Sometimes it takes five hours. Then I go running. Working out is my reward for having written, along with cigarettes, computer solitaire, turkey sandwiches, television (I got one channel), trips to the Chukker, and calling friends on the phone. The computer provides no distraction, no reward, except for computer solitaire. To check my email, I must walk to school.

1997-1999. I get my first teaching job at Mankato State University, where, for the first time, I have a computer in my university office. I spend at least one day each weekend in my office, grading papers or writing or sending emails.

2013-05-27 13.48.421999. I get a fellowship and move to Gettysburg for the year. Upon arriving in Pennsylvania, I rupture my L5-S1 disc. For the next nine months, I am in constant pain. Can’t sit in a chair. Can’t stand up for more than five minutes. And so I buy a lazy boy chair and an IBM Thinkpad, a portable desktop, and I write most of The Circus in Winter in that chair, kicked back with a laptop on my belly. I have dialup internet. Twice a day, I reward myself for having written by plugging in all the cords and checking my email.

2000. I start teaching at The College of New Jersey. For the first three years, I don’t have internet at home. Looking back, I think of those years as blissful. My office was a short walk to campus, and so I would sometimes check email on the weekends, but often I did not. All I could do with my computer in those days was write stories and play solitaire.

2003. Still in New Jersey. I get rid of the Think Pad and buy a shiny Sony Vaio Laptop, and get internet at home, and so my computer becomes my music player, writing machine, and internet source. The Circus in Winter is done, and so I spend the next year making crafts in my kitchen, listening to music on my laptop, reading crap on the internet. I write nothing.

2005. Move to Pittsburgh, where I don’t know a soul. I spend my considerable down time lurking on Battlestar Galactica and American Idol message boards. I have no one to talk to in real life except by phone and email. I am not on Facebook. I am not on MySpace.

2006. I start working on my second book, Comeback Season. Over the course of a year, I accumulate 350 pages of material. Journaling. Musing. Thinking. In other words, stuff that comes from me. But also, a lot of research, stuff from outside me. Internet articles on football strategy and statistics. Peyton Manning. Female coaches and their spouses vs. male coaches and their spouses. You name it, I researched it, cut and pasted into word documents. Dating profiles cut and pasted. Scenes sketched out. Game stats. Pittsburgh demographics. Reggie Wayne’s brother’s obituary. YouTube clips of sports movie training montages. Project Playlist music mixes. What did Al Pacino say in his locker room speech in Any Given Sunday? What’s the name of that sideline reporter Joe Namath tried to smooch? How many single or divorced men between the ages of 35-42 are enrolled on Match.com right now? Google search, cut, paste, boom. (Man, did I need Evernote!) I use my MySpace blog to try out new material on friends. Emails drafted and sent and received and saved in specially marked folders. However, when it’s time to actually write the book, I decide I must separate Writing from Internet Research/Play, so I bring my office desktop computer (a 2005 Dell) to my home office and I don’t hook it up to the internet. 

  • I write on the Desktop Machine, just like I did in 1993.
  • I research/play on the Vaio Laptop Machine, which sits next to the Desktop Machine, in case I need to look something up or play some music or send an email.

This system works well, and I complete 6-10 pages every day on the Desktop Machine over the course of 4 months. This book went from idea to finished product in a little over a year, and it would have been impossible to write (or even to conceive of writing) this book ten years earlier.

To broaden the lens a little: What is the relationship between the rise in popularity of creative writing programs and the cultural shift from typing (a labor intensive way to create text) to word processing? Would fewer people imagine themselves as writers if it was physically harder to do? Does Microsoft Word make you “feel” like a writer in different way than typing made you feel like a writer?

Question: if you weren’t able to write on a word processing machine anymore—the apocalypse has come and there are no computers, no electricity, or you’ve become paralyzed—would you still find a way to write?

Question: 30 years ago when writers had bad backs, how did they cope? 30 years ago, how many people gave up on research-heavy books because it would take too long to complete them?

Thanks for reading! Why don’t you write a similar blog post, dear reader, and link back to this post? I’d love to see pictures of your writing space and read a history of your writing machines!

General Teaching Writing


  1. Ian Wilson says:

    It’s interesting to think back on the technological modes of writing. Prior to 1983, I used an IBM selectric. I had invested in a couple of the typing balls so that I could write in different typefaces. In 1983 I got my first “portable” Compaq computer and have been using word processors ever since. In 1984 I spent $3K on one of the first HP laserjet printers. Heavy as a boat motor but it printed so fast and crisp. I was the envy of all my daisy-wheel printing friends.


  2. Brandy says:

    This is a blast from the past! It’s funny because despite the wonders of our Internet age, I would have no problem switching back to old pen & paper. I often start a draft of an article/poem/story handwritten on paper with notes to myself that I flesh out on the computer. But your storyboard is proof that having a tactile, visual representation of a bigger piece of work is still very useful, even in a world of Pinterest and Evernote!

  3. CathyShouse says:

    This is a fun trip down memory lane. I don’t know how you remembered the exact names of the machines you used and the approximate dates you used them. This is all I remember, or at least all I am willing to share. Ha
    After learning typing in high school and earning my 55 wpm pin, I was highly employable and had many part-time secretarial jobs for high school money and misc. needs in college. I was sometimes placed by Manpower temp services on contract and got my first job out of college by doing that. My degree was music and business so the career path was sketchy, at best.

    The first computer I used was when I worked at the law school at IU typing in information. I told them I could type and would figure out the rest. There were just a few notes posted by the keyboard about functions but I mainly used it as a typewriter. I spent the entire time panicked that I might hit the delete key. I did not know what the delete key did and thought it might erase the entire document.

    My first computer I bought that was not work related and chosen by them was made by K-Mart. I had gotten a coupon for 20% off anything in the store at K-Mart and they said I could apply it to a computer. I bought it on New Year’s Eve before the coupon expired–I’ve always been a deadline kind of girl. It had a Blue Light Special logo on it. 🙂 I had just had my second baby, ditched the previous job, and decided to be a writer. I was determined that I would not invest in anything else for my writing until I had made enough on writing assignments to pay for the expense of that computer. I had paid for it before the year was half thru, mainly by creating a corporate newsletter for my former employer, a major national corporation. I was so proud!

  4. As a guy with a mild learning disability, the advent of computer word processing has been a godsend. Scrivener has really helped. I nearly flunked out of college because getting my ideas to flow through a typewriter was torture! Thanks for your post. We are always hearing how tech is changing publishing but it is good to think about how it is also changing the writing process.

  5. Robert Ritchie says:

    Liked the history, sorry for your back. We spent many years in the same places. My wife and I lived 8 years in Minnesota, another 3 in Iowa, and now
    18 completed in NH. Originally for me is Camden, NJ and for San Francisco.

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