Issue 19. Bartleby never had it this good

Mostly shoptalk and making excuses for not writing much

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The writing life took a beating over the course of the semester.

I had strong momentum heading in, thanks to all the substack writing over the summer, and I kept churning out new material until mid semester, when the pace slowed. When November rolled in, this happened…

As a teacher of writing, I’m constantly swimming in words, always facing the risk of getting pulled down by the current or battered by the hurricane-force wind power of great writers I’ll never match up to and the rising floodwaters of student writing, muddy and clogged with flotsam.

Too much of a good thing is too much, and paralysis sets in. Call it what you want: writer’s block, hitting the wall, the spiral of shame, envy, fear, uncertainty, denial, bashfulness, ennui, burn out—the world contains ample excuses for not writing.

I’ll never forget something Mr. Schultz, my junior high band director, told me once. When the school year ended, he would take a two week vacation and eliminate music from his life completely. No practice, no gigs, no phonograph, no radio. Total detox. When he came back after this deep cleansing, he would feel fresh, ready to go at it again. Playing with words is no different.

A brief canine detour

Recently I came across a review of my teaching that called me “literally a golden retriever in human form.” I actually like being compared to a dog. These faithful, persistent companions, these happy creatures of habit and stoical mindfulness, keep their focus, managing to do just a couple things very well. Chase the ball, chomp the bone, indulge the master with a few tricks, then back to sleeping, eating, walking, pissing, farting, and shitting.

Our Boston Terrier Alfie is not a creative writer, but he’s most creative with his playtime. In this shot he muses over what to do with his Pepto-bone squeak toy.

Alfie is always inventing variations to his games. Of late, we play volleyball, which involves me setting up the ball and him punching it aloft. He’s gotten good at directing the hit towards my wife on the sofa. After that was down, he started hopping on the ottoman, waiting for her to set up another shot, which he punches to an armchair or the floor and chases it down. Volleyball has a side variation component, morphing into a game of self-induced fetch. Now he has begun directing shots from the ottoman position back towards me. Whenever the human invents a new twist, he’s all over it, a precocious student of the game.

Basically what I’m saying is that instead of writing much over the past month, I’ve been playing with my dog.

Still, there is a good fight to wage, a loyalty to the creative practice, an itch to be scratched, a newsletter to get out. While waiting to generate some more genuinely creative content, I thought it a good time to share a little bit of shop talk this week, something I’ve been meaning to do for months.

Podcast news

But first, some updates on the podcasting side of my creative life. Despite slogging through long semesters, Dave Blank and I have managed to crank out a couple new Podula Rasa shows. We continue to explore the life and influence of our high school creative writing teacher, Thom Williams.

The two most recent podcasts feature a fascinating interview with artist Jon-Michael Frank, who creates dark-witty comic art like this:

Check out Jon-Michael’s shop online, and follow his instagram @jonmichaelfrank.

We also have an interview with Dave Forman, who shares stories about how Thom Williams mentored Dave in writing and publishing a book while still in high school(!), as well as Thom’s influence on his public speaking and leadership skills.

In other podcasting news, I’m developing a new podcast series! It’s called The English Suite podcast: the voice of Widener English and Creative Writing. The focus will be on the cool things happening in and around our department. We will feature interviews with faculty, students, alumni, and literary happenings in the region. It will be an amalgam of talk format and creative performance and who knows what else. Obviously, those with any connection to Widener ought to take interest, but I want the podcast to have appeal to anyone with a love for writing, reading literature, and creativity in general, so I’m hoping for a broader reach. The podcast is currently in development, and I hope to have a first episode available soon. You, faithful newsletter readers, will be among the first to know!

Shoptalk: what are your go-to tools for writing?

I have to confess to being a serial ditherer when it comes to writing tools. I’m always trying out new apps. It’s a neurotic thing. Don’t be like me.

Back in ye olde tymes, I wrote on a manual typewriter, then when I first started computing on the Commodore 64 I used a WYSIWYG word processor called GeoWrite. Then on the Amiga platform, I wrote with programs such as excellence! and WordPerfect. I still occasionally do some drafting in an Amiga emulator on the PC using a program called Transwrite, a bare-bones plain-text word processor, which, and I’m not kidding here, even in emulation, is the absolute fastest, most responsive writing program I’ve ever used. The letters fly off your fingers to the screen. It is truly a speed demon.

When I switched to the PC and Mac platforms in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, I used programs like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Pages, and the Zenware app Writemonkey. Writing in most of these word processors never felt right to me. The behemoth is of course Microsoft Word. Me and Microsoft Word have a hate/hate relationship. I only begrudgingly use it for work-related stuff, final revisions and manuscript preparation.

I still do some journaling, drafting and note making in Microsoft OneNote, though (IMHO the secret killer app in the Microsoft Office suite). And I’ve tried out a slew of web-based writing apps, too many to mention.

The aforementioned dorkishness is prelude to the real story. Lately, I’ve been gravitating back to Scrivener. For my money , it is the most capable, flexible tool for writers on the market. Go to Literature and Latte to find out all about this amazing program. It’s designed from its roots for writers, and is especially geared for book length projects and collections. When you have a lot of moving parts and you need to keep them organized, Scrivener gathers it all and keeps them in order. I like its flexibility. You can switch between note card views, outline views, split window editing, and full screen distraction-free editing. There’s a lot going on in this product, and the learning curve is steep but worth it. I’ve tried so many programs over the years, and this is the one I keep coming back to. I’ve had it on the Mac platform for over a decade, and currently I’m running the trial version on my Windows 10 laptop. Yes it costs money, but not a lot, given the immense bang for buck ($49 standard license, $41.65 educational license). Once the 30 day trial expires, I’ll be forking over the bucks for the Windows license. I’m making a new year’s resolution to commit myself to Scrivener full time now. No more fiddling around.

If you are totally broke, you might want to try, a novel-writing extension for your web browser (particularly, Google Chrome). This cleverly designed program truly shines for those with a Google drive account. It keeps a local database of your writing projects on your computer and syncs it to the Google drive. This means it’s portable. You can just fire up the app in Chrome on any computer and keep your writing in sync. It’s like a lite-weight version of Scrivener. You create projects and add pieces (chapters, scenes, poems, sections, etc.) to them. It has a notes feature built-in and some helpful templates and planning tools for novelists to get you generating and outlining ideas. And you can export projects to html, markdown, rtf, MS Word docx, and epub formats. The distraction-free editing is pretty and smooth, and like Scrivener, it can do typewriter scrolling, so you’re always focusing the writing on the middle of the screen.

I first started using two summers ago, and it’s nice to use. It doesn’t have nearly the bells and whistles of Scrivener, however, and I wonder how long the developer will keep it going. In that regard, it’s a little shaky. Despite all that, for some, this app might be all you need. Personally, I have found it to be a convenient and pleasant writing environment. I do miss the power and flexibility and polish of Scrivener, however, which is why I’m using Wavemaker less and Scrivener more.

Each and every writer has their own wish list of criteria and essential features in a writing app. What about you? In the comments, you can share your preferences. To comment, respond by email or leave some feedback on the website.

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