Unevenly Distributed: Disillusionment, Clark Nova, The MacBook Air & The Perfect Writer’s Machine

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.

* * * * *

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.

About Mohit


  1. Hey John,

    your article is quite brilliant : it gives me both the excuse to buy the Macbook Air and the shame to do so too.
    I have started writing movies on my sparetime and was considering buying a notebook for the task. One of those light, easy to transport and long battery-life gadget that I could take with me to the public toilets if inspiration had the pleasure to hit me in the face while it was red with herculean efforts to expulse yet another shit out of me…
    The Macbook Air looks like the perfect tool, but it’s 4 times more expensive than the other PC ones. So I was considering buying it or not… over and over again. Now that I read your article I know that it IS the perfect tool, that I should probably get one, but then again, I also appreciate the fact that it won’t write for me, no matter how sleek it is. Come to think of it : I’m probably gonna get one, and then cry that even though I have all I need, I still can’t get to make it happen… Or maybe not, who knows ? 😉

    Anyway : thank you for your honest input. I really really liked it.


  2. Will your macbook air look so attractive when it is slowly turned into an ‘app store’ only install device?

    At the moment you are free to install vlc and just about any other app regardless of any need to agree with app store drm.

    Apple launches ‘Mac App Store’ on January 6th this year.

    In time this ‘Mac App Store’ will replace all other software installation method, then your freedom to choose
    which software you want on your general purpose computer, will have been very much restricted.

    Any software where developers want free and unrestricted distribution, will then be prevented from ‘reaching’ your machine.

    If you haven’t figured it out already, Apple has virtually no interest in OSX, but because of it’s history it needs to keep making new releases. I suspect they will become fewer with more time between releases.
    Apple thinks it has found the holy grail in media sales (latest movie, just visit our store) which are more profitable. There is just one hitch … media players that do not restrict formats.
    Apple feels it needs to prevent you installing your own media players, so as to ensure you must visit its media store to buy all your media needs.

    Oh you can have any codec on your machine you want today, but in two years time, just see how many codecs you can install on a ‘new mac’. Very few I suspect.
    Welcome to the new Apple.

  3. Wait, what? The perfect laptop won’t write for me? Then it’s not perfect, is it?

  4. I got a gateway with a chiclet keyboard, much easier for us fat fingered writers. Costs 450 from best buy and I would argue that your emotional attention to a tool is poetic but a mine does everything yours can do. I understand the passion for all things apple, the first computer I ever used was an Apple IIe. But come on, I got an icore 3 processor which has two cores and can handle 4 threads easily with 4 gbs of ram. I can write music watch videos and write at the same time with ease. I have children and cannot justify the extra expense for the apple logo. and the last guy comments is correct. Microsoft still supports XP. But for someone who just wants to write I would definetly push them towards something more affordable.

  5. I never could write very focused on a machine with a proper operating system. I�m talking about the actual process of writing. I get distracted very often. But what works really well for me is an iPad with push notifications turned off (maybe even airplane mode during writing, but that would disable the auto saving via sync) and the Writer app (http://www.informationarchitects.jp/en/writer-for-ipad/) – Consider trying it for the purely creative part of your writing

  6. An article by a writer about writing on a Mac can’t be complete without mentioning Scrivener, surely? http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

    Although there’s a Windows version due one day, for now it’s still the case that the best reason for writing on a Mac is that it’s the only way you can use Scrivener.

  7. @Gary: That was a lot of words to use when you could have just said, “Herp, derp.”

    None of that shit is going to happen.

  8. Wow, Gary seems to think that codecs have something to do with writing 27,000 words a day. This reminds me of the last in-store book reading I had where some crazy guy jumped up and started ranting about the middle east while I was talking about gardening.

    Back on topic, I too find the 11″ Macbook Air to be perfect for writing. I have finally retired my AlphaSmart Dana.

  9. @Gary

    FUD much?

    Your nightmare scenario just won’t happen. Apple makes most of its money selling hardware. That’s why they don’t license their OS to other computer companies. They want you to buy a Mac from them. Apple does not now, and won’t ever prevent people from freely installing whatever they want on their Macs. It would drive away customers. And don’t conflate iOS with OS X. Apple’ does restrict software on its mobile devices, but it is too late to close the barn door on the Mac.

    You don’t mention which media players Apple won’t let you install on the Mac because Apple does no such thing. How can they stop you? Refusing to carry certain software in the app store is not the same as preventing you from obtaining it elsewhere. Refusing to support every codec in iTunes does not stop you from using different media players that do.

    If Apple were ever to stupidly attempt to lock up the Mac, it would quickly be jailbroken (as was iOS), but more importantly, plenty of previously loyal Mac users would head for Linux. Apple is not stupid.

    Mac sales have been steadily increasing for years. Don’t tell me Apple isn’t interested in OS X. Perhaps the reason you don’t see as many frequent revisions of OS X lately is because it’s mature and largely trouble free. If it ain’t broke why fix it?

    The app store is just a convenience. Use it if you like, or ignore it. And get over your paranoia.

    If you find the Mac too limiting, buy something else that you can tinker with and configure to your heart’s content. But most people (who wouldn’t know a codec if it bit them on the ass) just want things to work with a minimum of fuss. The Mac fits the bill, and continues to gain popularity.

  10. I feel your pain. For me it has been a similar search for the right stationery, right now I use a Namiki retractable fountain pen with Rhodia notebooks. NOT getting my last ditch novel finished any faster.

    I have been an Apple computer user since ’95 and will continue to do so, not because I have taken sides in some fanboy war but simply out of personal preference. Which by the way I do not feel the need to justify any further.

    Enjoy the Macbook Air. I want one too! Maybe what you need to do is to apply some lateral thinking to what is blocking you. And it is never too late.

    Well written piece by the way.

  11. John, I suspect I will be preaching to the converted by stating that no one seriously claimed writing was ever going to become easier for anyone. As Thomas Mann wrote, in ‘Essays of Three Decades’ (1942):

    “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

    Your recognition of this suggests you are, in fact, improving in a way you hadn’t previously considered: you are recognising your own limitations.

  12. Agree the Air is great. But what “writer specific” software do you use?

  13. Have you tried dictation SW? That’s one less interface in the way of stream of conscience (sic!) text entry. Of course, you will need an outliner too, to structure your thoughts. And an editor to fine tune your dictation finally.

    I recommend Dragon Naturally Speaking, although you will need to train a separate instance for each language (e.g. English, German, French, Latin, etc) you are going to use; it’s not multilingual.

  14. I don’t often reply to blog authors, as i see there are so many with poor linguistics. But your post here, was very well written, not just because of the subject but also of the content. Well done. Also, i agree the new air is a great tool for writers.

  15. But a laptop is horrible for serious writing. You can’t have two pages up at a time at a 13″ screen, and laptop keyboards and screen placement make for bad ergonomics when writing long term. Laptops are almost always at a premium in terms of cost compared to desktops let alone with the Mac tax, break much easier, and become obsolete much faster due to expandability issues.

    Unless your writing beat demands serious portability, a laptop isn’t worth it. You are confusing the act of writing with the image of a writer, and savvy marketers push the image of the boho writer typing elegant prose on an equally elegent laptop in an independent coffee shop. Your productivity will skyrocket with a large screen, and a good keyboard.

  16. I don’t agree with your differentiation of “extension” and “augmentation”. Could you please further explain the distinction? For me, “extension” makes much more sense for tools such as a bicycle, hammer, or typewriter.

  17. Your article, John, reminds me very much of myself when it comes to photography. Nicer equipment (but not top of the line). Good software. A new & powerful computer. I thought it all would help make me a better photographer. Three years later I am a better photographer. But not because of which lens or camera I purchased. Or because I’m now using an iMac. Or because I splurged on Lightroom instead of using the software which came with my camera.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the tools of our given trades and hobbies. They’re tangible. Their merits can be debated and categorized. They can be tested and compared to others. They come in pretty colours or gleaming metals.

    But the real work of our jobs, pursuits, hobbies, etc. are not like this and that is what makes the infuriating difficult.

    I empathize completely.

  18. Apple has yet to release a device that makes Mr. Brownlee a good writer .

  19. This statement could be perfectly true, Alex, and yet Mr. Brownlee would still be a good writer. I presume this is the spirit in which you mean your comment to be taken.

  20. “But come on, I got an icore 3 processor which has two cores and can handle 4 threads easily with 4 gbs of ram. I can write music watch videos and write at the same time with ease. ”

    Ha, ha,ha, you do not need 2 cores, 4 threads or 4gbs of ram for that. You can do all that on the slowest processor you could buy today, with 1gb of ram, and perfect ease. Maybe not with windows 7, but with XP or Mac OS, or Linux. You make me laugh, people like you always talking up the specs, and still do not use them.

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