February 13, 2014
pursuing the zen of writing
Ink and paper. No facebook, no distractions!

Writing is Difficult,

Coming from me, that probably doesn't come as a surprise, considering my posts are dated a year apart from each other. Writing is just hard for me. I tend to re-read my sentences, correct myself ad nauseam until my sentences seem right. Or I get distracted. And then I erase the entire paragraph because it doesn't fit. But this is a problem that I don't face alone: most people call it Writer's Block, and it is the scourge of a writer's productivity.

But I’m not so sure that it’s a real medical affliction. It’s more of a manifestation of doubts and anxieties in our work and abilities. It might be the sheer size of the challenge of writing itself that stops us would-be writers in our tracks. Or our ability to constantly question our decisions. Or our technology-fueled ability to self-criticize and compare ourselves to the successes of others.

but writing is Wonderful

Creative writing on its own, without any distractions or goals or objectives or spellchecking, can also be a beautiful thing. As a kid I used to write many short stories, if anything, as a way to let my mind loose. When you write creatively, you give yourself this sandbox of unlimited possibilities. You can completely let go; let your inner child and sense of wonderment come alive. When you write for yourself, it shouldn’t make sense. In fact, no one should ever read it. These are your inner thoughts and your soul at work; your id wrestling control over your ego and super-ego, letting itself loose on the keyboard.

Creative writing can become a pure, free-flowing writing state that are equal parts meditation and play; it can be an exhilarating stream of (sub)consciousness; an act of spilling dreams on paper.

Unfortunately, most of us are conditioned to not let our subconscious wander too far. Our pursuit of perfection, or our fear of criticism distract us from retreating into a meditative state. Accordingly, subconscious writing is suggested to increase the speed and creativity in our writing, but getting ourselves into the subconscious-writing mindset is difficult.

Creative Writing with Deadlines

The NaNoWriMo logo

National Writing Novel Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an event that encourages creative writing. On the first of November, roughly 340,000 people begin their novels from scratch. On the last day of November, they must reach 50,000 words to win, which is roughly 1,500 words a day. It’s an easy goal for any professional writer, but a hard for those of us with only a fleeting curiosity in writing. Distractions like work, friends, errands, and Facebook get in our way. Out of the 340,000 participants, only about 40,000 finished.

The point of NaNo is for potential novelists to get themselves into the state of subconscious, flow-like writing. The goal is to get writers to stop over-thinking, stop self-critiquing, and to start getting their thoughts down on paper. The goal is to eschew quality for quantity: to complete a first draft of a long piece of narrative. NaNo encourages potential writers to flesh out their thoughts and ideas, rather than nitpick grammar and the small stuff. Ultimately, NaNo is a tool that teaches us that Writers’ block is an obstacle easily overcome.

Feature Reduction

My trusty typewriter. Not that I ever use this thing. But it's cool right? Not too hipster?</a>

Technology has historically always enabled us to do more. In writing and printing, movable type and typewriters have made us more prolific content creators. Computers and text-editors have introduced the freedom of editing: to change, reflow, and to move any thoughts around on a page.

All these technologies have enabled us to do more, but in that pursuit of more, we’ve lost a sense of purity. Similar to decision paralysis, having more options tends to hurt our ability for determining action. If we can go anywhere, where should we go? We need direction and constraints to help shape our decisions. The recent trend for minimalism and reduction reflect this notion, like Flat UI and Durr, the face-less watch.

In the case of NaNoWriMo, 99% of the features offered by Microsoft Word won’t be useful. They’re distractions. If we strip down the word processor to its basic core, we can use minimalism to give us a distraction-free writing experience. An experience that we can optimize and design for. One where we can pursue writing speed, writing zen.

The best example I could find of technology that pulls the writer closer to the content, was pen & paper and typewriters (pictured: my Sears Tower typewriter). Following in the spirit of pen & paper and typewriters, I aimed for a writing experience that emphasized writer creation and freedom of expression, and de-emphasized self-critique and backspace-remorse.

On the Pursuit of Zen

Typewriter emulator. Reducing the word processor to its bare necessities.

I created NanoWrito during the first week of November 2013, after trying to find a better alternative than Word or Sublime. I needed something simple, not distracting, and could tell me the word count easily. Something more similar to a typewriter than a word processor. So I set out to create my own app.

It’s very minimalist, as it consists of a text-box and a word counter, that large 0 looking into your eyes. When users click enter, the text is moved to an uneditable field where users won’t be able to go back and fix anything. Anything they write is immutable durig this session. An alternate Zen Mode darkens the screen and blurs out the previously written words, so users can’t clearly read the content, but would know that their work is being updated. A Flash module assists in copying the work to somewhere safe, and the Close functionality is guarded from accidentally closing the app.

For the month of November, the project was fairly successful. I only put up links on the NanoWrimo apps forum, and on the NaNoWriMo subreddit, and garnered a few thousand unique visitors, with a number of daily recurring visitors.

And where in the previous two years I barely finished using the entire month of November, this year I was also able to finish my novel in less than two weeks.