This $35 Keyboard for Children Transformed Me Into a Novelist
In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.
About six months ago, I decided I should probably do what I’ve been putting off for the past five years of my life and actually write a book. In the very early period of that experiment, I thought that what I really wanted, what would really help me get the damn words on the page, would be a computer that didn’t do anything but write. A typewriter, basically, but with a screen, so I wouldn’t have to retype into a computer the sludge I produced in that initial draft. What would that even be? I hadn’t heard of such a thing, but I knew it was what I needed if I really wanted to barf up 300 pages of something that resembled a novel.
Eventually, I stumbled upon the AlphaSmart, a “portable word processor” first released in 1993 by two former Apple engineers who wanted to make teaching students how to type cheaper and easier. My version, the Neo 2, was released in 2007, although like every other model, it was discontinued in 2013. It has a small grayscale LCD screen that fits up to six lines of text, though, in my opinion, it looks best at four lines. A USB cord transmits up to 200 pages from the device to the computer as a simple text file. Three AA batteries power it for up to 700 hours, and, at 1.75 pounds, it’s lighter and more portable than my supposedly lightweight 2.65-pound Dell XPS 13 laptop. At only $35 plus shipping on eBay, it was also substantially cheaper. Of course, it ought to be cheaper: The only thing the AlphaSmart does is type. And therein lies its appeal.
Writing is not the hardest job in the world, but it’s taxing enough that, like working out or scrubbing the baseboards, I’ll subconsciously drift over to any other task that requires even a little less effort. On a computer, this is very easy: Twitter, with its relentless stream of news and opinions and occasional jokes, is the perfect online space for half paying attention to literally anything other than the blank page patiently waiting to be filled. Researchers call this “cyberloafing.”
“What’s happened now, with the advent of the internet, is that it’s nearly impossible to keep people off the internet at work,” the late Matthew McCarter, associate professor of management at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said in a press release for his small 2016 study about the bad habit. In his study, researchers looked at two methods for decreasing cyberloafing. In the first, managers turned off the internet for participants assigned to perform a simple data entry task. In the second, they allowed the participants to vote on whether they’d like to turn off the internet. The latter group was significantly more productive than both the control group with internet access and the group that had its internet forcibly turned off. Having a say in whether or not they wanted the internet turned off gave the group a sense of control in the workplace, which encouraged greater productivity.
Some online productivity tools, like Write or Die, try to completely control your experience, which works for some people, but not for me. In Write or Die, you’re tasked with writing a certain amount in a specified time period, and if you don’t, the program begins to erase what you’ve already written. Other productivity-focused word processors block the internet, take over the entire screen, or reward you with cute baby animal pictures once you reach a certain word count, but none of these tools reliably force me to concentrate. They’re either too punishing, too easy to work around, or don’t offer enough in the way of a reward.
The AlphaSmart gives me the perfect amount of power over my environment. Because it isn’t connected to the internet, I’m not tempted to check Twitter when a scene gets particularly tough. But I’m not chained to it, either; if I want, I can get up and walk into the other room where I’ve stashed my laptop. Once I’m sitting at the AlphaSmart, though, I might as well get to work. It’s either that or stare into space.
“I wrote so much of my first book on the AlphaSmart, and it really became part of my creative process,” says Alexis Henderson, author of The Year of the Witching, which comes out on July 21. She says she appreciates that the AlphaSmart is distraction-free and that the device’s simplicity, as well as its lack of a cursor, forces her to keep moving forward instead of going back and fiddling with what she’s already written. “I love that I can just throw it in my tote bag and go to the park. I’m kind of forced to write, because if I bring only my AlphaSmart, there’s nothing else that I can do except write.”
The AlphaSmart provides an almost Pavlovian space in which to write: Get the device out, and the brain immediately moves into writing mode.
Leslye Penelope, who writes the Earthsinger Chronicles under the name L. Penelope, says she loves her AlphaSmart not because she’s prone to distraction, but rather because her tendency to continually self-edit made it difficult for her to keep up momentum on her novels. “I usually do writing in sprints. So, I’ll set a timer for 20 to 25 minutes, write a scene, and then immediately afterwards, I’ll hook the AlphaSmart up to the computer and put it into Scrivener,” a word processing program that’s popular with novelists, she says. She’ll do a couple of these sprints a day, loading the text immediately into her computer, because she’s nervous that the AlphaSmart will malfunction and lose her draft, though that has never happened, and she’s never heard of it happening, either. “I really get into a different mindset when I pull out the AlphaSmart — it’s become like a ritual to me now. I know I’m drafting when I pull it out. I can get into that drafting mindset really easily.”
In this way, the AlphaSmart provides an almost Pavlovian space in which to write: Get the device out, and the brain immediately moves into writing mode. This is another reason why I’ve been resistant to software on my computer that’s supposed to compel creativity and productivity. Because I do such a wide variety of tasks on my computer, my brain isn’t primed by the space to focus on one particular job. In this way, my computer’s all-purpose abilities, which is the main selling point of most laptops, actually becomes a liability. But the absolute simplicity of the AlphaSmart means that when I bring it out, I subconsciously know exactly what it is I need to do: write.
Henderson has had a similar experience with her AlphaSmart. “When I’m on my laptop, I’m often just being me. But when I’m on my AlphaSmart, I’m only being the voice of my books, my narrator voice, so I think that because of that, when I’m working on the AlphaSmart, it’s much easier for me to sort of transition to that more writerly way of thinking,” she says. “There is a much more direct connection between my character and the AlphaSmart than my character and the MacBook.”
Connecting the AlphaSmart to the computer is relatively foolproof: It requires just an A-B USB cable (and an adapter, if your computer, like mine, uses USB-C ports) and a program downloadable from the device’s website that I got up and running in a few minutes. The file loads quickly into the AlphaSmart computer program as a simple text file, which I easily copy and paste into Google Docs.
That said, the AlphaSmart isn’t perfect for every task. The company no longer maintains the product and relevant software, so if there’s a run on them after I publish this article — well, that’s it for the AlphaSmart, probably. I won’t write any of this column on it, since I need access to my notes and the internet while I’m drafting that kind of work. It’s sturdy but plain-looking, especially in comparison to the Astrohaus Freewrite, a beautiful e-ink portable word processor with a fancy mechanical keyboard. Still, the AlphaSmart is much cheaper: $17 to $50 on eBay, depending on the condition and the whims of the seller. Partly because of the expense of e-ink technology, the Freewrite ranges in price from $389 to $699. (Penelope reviewed the Freewrite on her YouTube channel. Spoiler alert: She prefers the AlphaSmart.)
In the week that I’ve owned my AlphaSmart Neo 2, I’ve already written twice as much as I typically write in the same period. Part of this burst of energy is surely due to the novelty factor of a fun new device. But as Henderson and Penelope make clear, the brilliant combination of no distractions, a limited ability to edit, and the intrinsic connection of the device to the text makes me optimistic that my book — a project that has ominously hovered over my head for the past six months — will become easier and more enjoyable to write. And at $35, what did I have to lose?