I am sitting on Laptop Row at the coffee shop where I write four or five times a week. Laptop Row is not an official designation, but the desirable red booths lining one wall of my beloved arty-dykey anti-Starbucks correspond with a series of electrical outlets. Those who need to plug in their creativity not only congregate here, but often share tables to get access, or lie in wait for the next opening. But it wasn’t long ago that I scorned these Outlet Jockeys.
In his ’70s bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig split the world into two categories of people: those who like the experience of a thing (Romantic thinking) and those who like the mechanics of a thing (Classic thinking). As a Pisces who majored in English but doesn’t type, who loves getaways but never learned to drive, who prefers the search for the perfect gift over the gift itself, I’m the living definition of the Romantic. It will come as no surprise, then, that my writing habits are also Romantic and that I prefer the joy of the written word over technological advances.
As a playwright, my process had — until now — changed very little since I was an undergraduate writing his first preachy drama (complete with Greek chorus). The first draft was always handwritten on college-ruled (never wide-ruled) paper in ink (never pencil), with a designated notebook containing the uninterrupted sequential progress of the script. All character sketches were written separately and not included in the notebook, as they would disrupt the flow of the play itself, which had to read smoothly as a document when complete.
This was lovely, really, and the longhand evidence of my work made me feel like, I don’t know, Shakespeare. The result is that for every play I wrote, tucked away somewhere is its primal form, a writerly document for the ages that will enlighten the scholars who are sure someday to study my body of work. (Okay, so having visions of grandeur is a decidedly Romantic tendency.) Yes, this meant every goddamn draft had to be keyed into the computer later, necessitating an additional "first" draft before I could authentically craft a second draft. But I was convinced the first first draft was purer, unsullied by Microsoft.
I had writer friends who drafted whole novels on their computers, and I just shook my head: poor souls, typing when they could be writing, with each draft disappearing into nothingness upon revision. When laptops appeared on the scene, I went into complete Luddite mode. How on earth could you mar the beauty — nay, the sanctity! — of the writing process by reducing it to the province of trendy technology? Why not just write a novel on your cell phone, or dictate it into your MP3 player? I kept my pen firmly in hand.
Over time, though, the inflexibility of my stance began to weaken. As I found myself writing for more of my living — columns, articles, freelance copywriting — the longhand thing became impractical and unwieldy. Did I really need a handwritten version of an article on bar food? Did having a place in my notebook really elevate the historical importance of the column about my marriage? Of course not — and soon, all my non-dramatic writing originated directly on my home computer. I found myself writing just as fast as before and revising even faster.
When I began my most recent play, I was so inspired, and the ideas were coming so furiously, I considered writing it on my computer so that I could skip the extra step entirely. But I also respect my own creative-writing habits: I know that I write first drafts best in the morning, and I don’t write those drafts well at home. Odd as it may sound, I like to write in public places, surrounded by the life-energy of other people. It gets my juices flowing — and then I disappear entirely into my head and ignore everyone around me completely. So I dutifully dragged my spiral notebook to the cafˇ, only to find myself surprisingly in the grip of Laptop Lust. The happy community on Laptop Row never looked more productive, more progressive than when I sat off in pen-and-pad territory, wishing I could simply hit "save" as I went.
It was the Romantic me who went to Circuit City and Best Buy, who glazed over as acne-riddled salesboys extolled the virtues of Vaios and Thinkpads, and who eventually fled to do some reading on the subject before spending nearly a month’s salary for a basic, Luddite-friendly model. When I finally got my laptop home, I immediately named her Lula (after my grandmother, who also inspired and terrorized me), then ditched my paper notebook, opened Word, and began writing the new play before even checking out the other programs I had paid for. I was up at the butt crack of dawn the next morning and ready to roll — oh, the freedom, the power of mobility!
But my joy is not entirely uncompromised, because now my writing comes with another emotion: terror. I am haunted by the idea of losing my laptop — Romantics are prone to losing things — or having it stolen, or tripping on it and causing it irreparable harm. Paper notebooks can be lost, of course, but no one is likely to steal one, and they aren’t especially breakable. And should you lose a handwritten play, it would be a terrible psychic blow, but the financial toll would come in at around $3.99. I may write like the wind now, but I find myself looking over my shoulder: is that guy staring at my laptop? Should I loop the cord through the sleeve of my jacket so I don’t forget it? Is my paranoia Romantic or Classic?
As I sit here now, writing this column on Laptop Row, I see that I should probably go — a queue is beginning to form, and Outlet Desire is burning in the eyes of those waiting. I will carefully close up Lula, pack her gently into my bag, and anxiously take my liberated self out into the light of day.
David Valdes Greenwood is ashamed to admit that he will bite your hand if it gets too close to Lula. He may be reached at email@example.com