One quality I think is endemic amongst all would-be (but probably won’t-be) anythings is a passionate belief in gadgets being able to transcend their own lack of talent, intelligence or discipline. At least, that’s certainly been true for me… which is probably why I’m a professional writer more by luck than by resolve.
It’s strange, then, that after fifteen years I’ve finally found the perfect writer’s machine in the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air. It fuses together both the best software and hardware of which a writer could ever dream, while boasting all of the slender and effortless portability of a composition journal. It is a writer’s terminal in the purest sense: with its excellent battery life, ephemeral weight, satisfying keyboard and instant-on capabilities, the new MacBook Air is perfectly suited to be the nexus into the inner chaos of my own thoughts, feelings, hang-ups, pretensions and emotions as a blank page.
So why isn’t writing any easier?
The MacBook Air might be the gadget that I’ve spent my whole life waiting for. It’s a device that with silent elegance addresses every demand both spoken or unspoken, both realized and unrealized that I could ever make upon a tool meant to allow me to pursue a lifelong passion… and it’s a beautiful thing indeed when a tool imbues its function and becomes one with it.
But in the MacBook Air’s perfection as a writer’s machine, it just as silently, just as elegantly robs me of the crutch of imperfect tools to explain my own mediocrity. The MacBook Air might be the perfect laptop for a writer, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not nearly as suited to the task of writing as it is.
When I think back over the last twenty years or so, what I realize is that I’ve spent most of it more unhealthily fixated upon the tools of writing than actually doing it. This lack of seriousness about what is ostensibly my passion stretches back to when I was ten and spent half an hour in the school supplies aisle of K-Mart deciding upon the perfect spiral-bound notebook to transcribe the adventures of Dr. John Crypt, MD (lest there was any doubt about his medical qualifications) a 40s-era private detective (and my own imaginary counterpart) who slayed vampires and Nazis both with equal ruthlessness. I still have that notebook, and even after twenty years, it’s mostly unfilled.
A few months later, I switched to an old 8086, and began hammering pulp into Wordstar. To this day, the one month I spent in that blue-and-yellow word processor writing a roughly 150 page novella about a shotgun-wielding private dick fighting off a New York City infestation of National Socialist bloodsuckers might be the period of productivity I am most proud of. Appropriately, though, Dr. Crypt’s adventure ended in an unintended cliffhanger when I didn’t know how to extricate him from an exploding underground bunker crawling with hemoglobin-guzzling Goebbels, and I inevitably began agonizing over whether a migration over to Word Perfect or even my mother’s old electric typewriter would somehow set Crypt right.
It didn’t, but that didn’t stop me from shifting to laptops next as the gadget that would finally allow me to realize my dream of writing fiction. There was the ancient Compaq 486/33 I bought when I was 17, which I remember best for boasting a working trackball in the right corner of the display bezel; an ultra-slim Toshiba I stole from Gillette when I was 20 on my last day as a temp; a 700MHz Gateway that my mother bought me as a gift before I moved to Europe (and which I, ingrate that I was, never quite appreciated for its sweetness until just now). Then I switched. Two MacBook Pros: a first-gen that ran at 112 degrees Celsius in the shade, and when it was retired was as packed with much ash and dust as the aluminum sarcophagus of some dense, disintegrated pharaoh; followed by a top-of-the-line unibody, deftly stolen from my bag while I drunkenly attempted to suck the face off of a girl with the face of Natalie Portman and the eyebrows of Roger Moore. Finally, there was a trusty netbook, the 10.1-inch Asus Eee PC 1000HE, the wetware of which I slashed and hacked until I was successful in grafting OS X onto its cerebral cortex… a complicated procedure to be sure, but one which I thought was absolutely necessary so as to give me access to some of the Mac’s best writing software.
Ostensibly, each and every one of these laptops was artistically justifiable: not only the tool with which I would extract the words from my head, but the receptacle into which they would be slopped out and stored. I had grand dreams of writing novels on all of these machines, and even started a few on them, but ultimately I rejected each and every one of these machines as somehow being unsuited to the task of realizing my literary greatness for reasons that seem utterly absurd now that the MacBook Air has robbed me of the comfort of my excuses. Those manuscripts are still stillborn and embryonic in these bellies of these computers’ hard drives: mothers and children dumped in landfills out of self-justification, aggrandizement, laziness and apathy.
The problem is that while computers have been perfectly suited to the task of text entry for decades, I wanted something more. I wanted a gadget that wasn’t just a receptacle for my words, but a device that would crystallize my thoughts. Each and every one of the gadgets I have ever used for writing was ultimately rejected because it was a computer, not a magic terminal that could tap into my emotions and make other people feel them just as palpably as I did. I wanted a laptop that would write for me.
These days, I write a lot. Between this column and the two blogs I work for, I probably write 27,000 words a week, but you know what? Writing’s no easier for me now than it was twenty years ago. The difficulty of knowing exactly what to say or even being able to identify how you feel about something never goes away. Writing isn’t so much like pulling teeth as it is like growing a tooth out of sheer willpower, finding where it rests in your jawline and then bloodily yanking it from the mouth. A good computer can give you some anaesthesia and a good handle on the clamps, but it can’t pull for you. Over the last few years, I’ve become quite good at this, but even so, it’s worth noting that while I have written a couple of encyclopedias worth of content on everything from gadgets to film, from games to consumer affairs over the past few years, I have never found the inner strength to become a novelist… the only thing I ever really wanted to be.
As a computer, my new MacBook Air is everything I could have ever asked for as a writer. Like a bicycle, it’s a perfect machine, imbued with its function to efficiently accelerate thought and motion into speed. In its perfection, though, the new MacBook Air also denounces the way we tend to think about gadgets. Gadgets aren’t extensions of self, they are at best an augmentation of self. The difference is important, because the perfect gadget doesn’t make you perfect, and all of the hardware in the world is never going to do the work of making you the person you want to be. In my case, that was to be a writer, but I only became one professionally by accident, and I only became successful at it because otherwise I would have starved. I still don’t write fiction. The MacBook Air might be the perfect device, but it makes me despair that I will always come up short.
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Unevenly Distributed is a weekly column written by John Brownlee fusing the week’s most interesting tech stories with history, context, weirdness, humor and vision towards the future. You can drop John a note by writing to john AT gearfuse DOT com.