/ focus

My Analog Life

It's safe to say that most of my waking life I am attached to one screen or another, much to the dismay of my mother. I think that's the nature of living in 2014. I don't do myself any favours either when it comes to screen avoidance; I'm a software developer who uses video games to unwind. Officially, I think, this makes me the kind of person many people imagine would be waiting with bated breath for some kind of ubiquitous, brain implanted computer. I will admit, I do have what I consider a serious addiction to information acquisition -- books were a gateway drug. However, my boundary between digital and analog is extremely definitive. Where most people see digital and analog as opposing forces, and one easily annihilating the other, I always see two different but complementary tools. I wouldn't eat soup with a knife, nor would I cut a steak with a spoon.

Let's draw the lines, so to speak.

A computer is awesome for collating and organizing, great for editing and formalizing, it's perfect for getting sources and alternative opinions. While I still like a good reference book, most of these tasks I would simply much rather do at a screen. Let the machine handle cutting and pasting, alphabetizing, and spell checking -- the stuff I'm willing to facilitate when I don't feel creative or inspired. Turning scribbles of ideas into neat, regimented formal documents requires little thought and all those sentence fragments start to make it look like you actually know what you're doing. That's probably why they say anyone can be a writer these days, at the very least anyone can have an extremely formal looking document.

However, it is safe to say that I would never go through the abject horror of drafting or brainstorming digitally. Red typo lines make me twitchy, even if it's just the system freaking over the Canadian spelling of things (selecting an American dictionary, or a British dictionary doesn't matter, it's a no-win scenario). The phantom of Clippy seems to loom everywhere -- 'looks like you're trying to brainstorm a blog post, would you like me to make the formatting weird and difficult?' Try as they might I have yet to meet a program that doesn't isolate you from the creative process either by supervising you or constraining you to a particular workflow. I've been (very) slowly developing my own writing suite, and I'm still not sure something I've custom-built for myself will be enough to tear me from my first draft written with my favourite pen and a stack of looseleaf.

I semi-recently splurged, and bought a Lamy CP1 fountain pen after years of nice liquid ink pens or Zebra 301 ballpoints. Filling and tweaking a good pen adds another dimension of relaxing ritual to the process. If you're going to handwrite I think there is something to be said for loving your tools. Every project I start begins here between fountain pen and pad of paper, from blog posts, and journal entries, to short stories, game plots, mechanics and lore, through work documents and hard programming problems. I can annotate the lines, and jot in the margins, doodle small pictures or lay out all the sheets on the floor and arrange them, see them all at once or stack them. Even light them on fire if they piss me off enough.

I've always been a handwriter, and one of the great joys and embarrassments is that it links you to the you of the past. Flipping through old notebooks, I can go back more than ten years and instantly be connected to the terrible and embarrassing moody poetry of my high school days-- dark and cheesy like my soul --or the chirpy Lion King diary with the little golden lock where I talk about playing games with my brother at the cottage. I remember where and why I wrote most of these things, unlike when I WayBack machine my old blogs which usually feel like they were written by a foreign entity. No plausible deniability when your handwriting hasn't changed much in 10 years.

But, for me the most important thing about handwriting has a lot to do with focus. I often feel like my thoughts act sort of like they are in a wind tunnel. It can make me easily distracted as a passing thought can occupy all of my attention. At a computer this is dangerous, as I can immediately chase down information relating to that thought, and get about three levels deep in related ideas and forget what I was doing initially. On paper if I get lost on a project I am far more likely to get lost in that project instead of floundering about elsewhere. Nip my compulsive knowledge drip in the bud.

The amorphous blob that is science has some nice things to say about us handwriting nerds as well. A number of studies focus on the problem of multitasking when taking notes (my aforementioned wind tunnel). Small distractions such as regular but clearly audible sounds can enable you to make mistakes, and slow you down because human beings can't switch contexts without significant overhead. Writing by hand removes some of the pings and flashes that you're pretty sure will only take a minute to deal with.

On top of that it seems as though learning is shallower when notes are taken on a laptop. Many people type without really thinking, whereas writing takes a bit of manual work as you need to focus on the individual shapes of the letters, as a result, those who took notes typing could basically verbatim copy down what was being said to them. The handwriters on the other hand needed to think critically about what was being said and what they needed to include in their notes. This added cognition let them remember what they wrote.

I started a daily journal this summer after I got some disappointing news, and was beginning to worry that my life was quickly approaching stagnation. Even though the entries are mostly about the trivialities in my life, it helps me see where I've come from, what projects I tend to prioritize and how I feel about the occasional sling or arrow of outrageous fortune. Unlike the dog and pony show of my blog and various social media outlets these thoughts exist in private notebook rather than out on the internet for everyone to see, the notes are often stupid or personal, and are inaccessible to hackers on the other side of the planet, which is more than I can say about the rest of my private information.