There's a distraction-free writing machine I keep looking at. It's not yet available. If it were, I would likely have bought the damn thing already. I like toys and tools and often don't know the difference. That or I choose not to pay attention to the differences. I know this much: a tool is something I need to get my work done well while a toy is something I usually want mostly when I'm unhappy with my life. A good toy entertains. A good tool transforms. The machine I'm looking at is advertised as a writing tool but I'm not so sure. I've fooled myself about these things before.
I'm typing this on a Chromebook my wife bought for me five and a half years ago. I still loved the old machine I was using but it was dying. If I could have somehow kept it going, I'd be thrilled with it now. It was a tool that felt good under my fingertips in a way few tools ever have, but it died and my wife got me this machine which is fundamentally better in every way: fantastic keyboard, dream screen, and even at over five years old quick as lightning. It is a great tool worth hanging onto.
This notion of good tools has stuck in my head for a few years. I've written about fountain pens, manual typewriters, paper dictionaries, iron skillets, and more, but I can't seem to get the whole idea onto the page or screen. I've chalked that up to inability and laziness, but Annie Dillard provides another explanation:
But you are wrong if you think that in the actual writing...you are filling in the vision. You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it to the page. The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins. The vision is not so much destroyed exactly, as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work. (The Writing Life, 56-57)
Still, this is no excuse not to put something on the page about these things. Nor is it a good excuse to wonder if anyone will care to read it. I worry that no one will like me but the writing doesn't give a damn about that. And the idea simply won't leave me alone.
There is something about these good tools and about the process of separating good tools from ordinary ones. There is value in determining the difference between a tool and a toy and moving from the abstract feeling of these things to the logic and coherence of one word after another pointed at understanding something that feels like it matters.
I'm still considering that writing machine, but probably won't buy it. I'll wait at least until I can decide what it is and maybe come to know a little better who I am here in the kitchen typing on this good tool and there on the page and screen where it's up to you what to think about all that I'm doing.
I notice that I've linked to articles about the tools I've discussed here and have held back from linking to more. I read these things and they stick with me. I want to think through the tools not as a distraction from the writing (at least I hope not) but as a way to take down some more of the barriers between thinking something and putting it down on the page.
There's no hope of eliminating all those barriers of course and I wouldn't want to. Some of the barrier is the essential process of translation which turns out to be almost magic. That's when the writing itself, not the writer, makes meaning and both writer and reader get to come to something new together. Good tools don't tear down all the barriers, but they make the process more about learning than about the struggle.