Writing on the Go

The conflict between having a day job and wanting to write (assuming that isn't your day job) doesn't come from being a "frustrated writer" as often as people might think. It comes more from wanting to squeeze in the day job, the writing, and "having a life" into one lifetime. A common solution is to just get up an hour earlier, but then there are people like me who have a day job, have writing they want to do, and want to have a life, plus they're night-owls who already get up at a stupidly early time because it takes them so long to stumble around in the morning. I take about ninety minutes to shower, eat breakfast, get dressed, and pack my lunch every morning. By the time time I'm at work I'm awake enough to chair a conference call, but I only get to that point about halfway through my commute. Did I mention that I'm allergic to coffee and avoid caffeine as much as possible for health reasons? Right.

Since writing early in the morning isn't a good idea for the likes of me, I've invested a lot of problem-solving energy into figuring out how to write during my commute to work on the streetcar. I used to use a regular notebook and pen. This was economical but illegible — one story I wrote this way had to have entire sections entirely rewritten, because not only could I not make out what the words were in some places, I couldn't make out what entire sentences and paragraphs were. So much for "getting it all down."

I thought about bringing my laptop with me, but sometimes I need to bring my work laptop home, and having all that computing power can be a pain in the neck to lug around — literally. Laptops aren't necessarily that easy to use in public transit, either — most people I see doing it are either reading or watching a video, as opposed to trying to type something.

I found something that works for me. It may not work for you, but hopefully if you're looking for a solution this will help you think about what you need to work in transit. There are other gadgets out there that will fit, and I'd love to highlight other ones here if people tell me about them (hint, hint).

I got a Nokia N-800 internet tablet, a folding Bluetooth keyboard, and a plastic mini cutting board. They fit into my tote bag nicely (the tablet and keyboard by themselves fit in my purse), they're light, and they're fine for first-draft level word processing.

The N-800 does a lot of other computer-ish things too, but you can read about them on the Nokia site. The important part for me is that it comes with a notepad application that accepts basic HTML: you can bold/italicise/underline, make bulleted lists, change the font to sans/serif/monospace, change the font size and colour, and that's about it. That's enough to get me through a first draft. For editing and polishing I transfer the file to my laptop and a proper word processor, or upload it to Google Docs.

If I can't use the keyboard (if I'm standing up for instance), I can use the handwriting recognition to write with the stylus. Some days I use the on-screen keyboard, but usually I use the handwriting recognition.

It's not as fast as typing on a proper keyboard — size has its drawbacks. I haven't tried writing any novel chapters on it, but I've been comfortable with short stories and some blog posts.

I've installed some applications to help out: a task manager, an off-line blog editor, and a spreadsheet. Everything's a free download (the operating system is Linux-based, so lots of freeware available), it's easy to transfer files and back up, and the battery lasts about six hours — say a day's worth of use. The screen is nice and sharp, and although I wouldn't recommend dropping it, I have dropped it a few times and it still works.

But the best part for me is that I can get to second draft stage and actually read my first draft.