Computers for Writers

Tech doesn’t usually interest me. In fact, it frustrates and disgusts me more than interests or amazes me. I still have fantasies in which I am sitting in my front window in the chair and I am reading and sipping tea and contemplating my evening and whether I will paint or embroider and the TV doesn’t exist, the laptop doesn’t exist, the smartphone does not exist. Technology is getting in the way of my peace. Maybe.

copyright Devon Trevarrow Flaherty, 2020

Yes, I have a blog and a webpage and I have an Instagram and a Facebook page and post to GoodReads, blah blah blah. When my kids teach me something on my iPhone, I make them actually teach me because I do not want to be obsolete. I want to be able to function in my world. These are the cards I have been dealt, and while I have considered many times going off the grid into the mountains, that is not the reality I have chosen for myself. Yet.

I have been working with a poor computer for the past, well, none of us can remember properly but at least four years. The laptop on which I spend a significant portion of most days has been slow (think slower than that), wonky (think wonkier than that), and temperamental (think more temperamental than that). For a long time, it sounds like a jet engine when it starts up, takes more than twenty minutes to turn on or wake up, takes several minutes to toggle between apps, moves like molasses through the internet, and won’t print, among other things. This has infused a lot of tension and sucked a lot of energy out of me. I have avoided some things and have set very wide margins around tasks that others don’t even think about, like printing a ticket or jotting down a paragraph that has popped in my head for one of my stories. I thought I wasn’t complaining, though when looking back, I was complaining and yet insisting that I stick with the old laptop until it turned over and died, itself. I refused to put it out to pasture, though it was sapping me. That sounds like a personal problem.

Some, it came down to money. Laptops are not cheap. And though a dozen times someone tried to convince me to go with a Chromebook, which I could get cheaper, or some other almost-laptop, I was stubborn about it. No. I just couldn’t see myself with something so stripped down, so dependent on the Cloud, so lacking in Microsoft software. I’m a writer, for pity’s sake, and an old-school one, at that. So here’s the story:

copyright Devon Trevarrow Flaherty, 2019

A couple weeks ago, I turned on my computer and it went to a factory-blue screen and I thought, That’s weird. Continuing on, I noticed that during the fifteen minutes it takes for my apps to pop up, only a few of them did, and the bar at the bottom of my screen was woefully empty. Hmm. I opened File Manager and, yes, that sinking in the pit of my stomach was warranted, there was nothing there. Not one file. Not one book, one short story, one lesson for home school, one family photo, one stupid video of the way the sequins on my pillow shimmered in the fan light. I looked a little further, but still nothing. Ooh boy. I did not panic. I took a deep breath, I used my phone to do a Google search, and I found a local computer repairman with excellent credentials and reputation. I called him. I got an appointment and an estimate and we chatted a little bit. I told him I would call him back. I woke my night-working, day-sleeping husband before I committed us to a $300 fix that was not guaranteed to work. He said, “Check your Cloud.” I said, “I’m lousy at the Cloud and my laptop is (surprise!) always giving me error messages about the Cloud.” He said, “Check the Cloud and shop for laptops.” I said, “What?! It’s a pandemic and I don’t know what I’m looking for. You’re the one with an amicable relationship with technology.” He said, “Check the Cloud and shop for laptops and I’m going to bed.”

I usually think I can do anything. I embrace challenges, things out of my depth, more than I can chew, etc. There are random things that I avoid having to conquer, and shopping for new tech is one of them. I literally let my husband go get me a new phone when mine dies, or I take free ones from relatives. But what I heard from my husband was a combination of “Put on your big girl panties” and “If you can raise children, cook a chocolate tasting menu for 160 people, ride a camel, and complete three novels, you are capable of shopping for a laptop.” Fine.

The spaces in our house, during the pandemic, have shifted their functions a little. Since these four-plus walls have become most of our world, the rooms and objects get used differently than they used to. I sat down where I stood, which was at the bottom of the upstairs staircase, and opened my phone’s browser, again. I began by checking the ol’ Cloud (with a sigh, because I hate these sorts of tasks.) I was amazed to discover—I mean it: amazed—that everything was in the Cloud. Like everything. Even all the photos and files that I never dreamed were being automatically backed up. Plus, with my storage on Shutterfly and the SD card in my camera, well, I wasn’t really missing a darned thing. Say que? So I called that computer guy back and told him I and my laptop were much better at backing up our files than we had ever dreamed and I was going to spend my money on replacing my tired, old, and cheap HP with something else. To his credit, he was very happy for me. Then,I started searching. What was I searching for? Something not too small. Something on the old-fashioned side. Something that meets my needs as a writer and a home-schooler. Aha! Aren’t there tech magazines out there that write about these very things? So I found a few reputable tech magazine articles that were actually about, drumroll, the best laptops for writers! One of the best ways to conquer a new task is to put yourself under good tutelage. These tech writers would be my gurus. So I spent the next while—still on the stairs because that’s what happens with ADHD: you either can’t focus on a single thing or you go all in and can’t be torn from your focus—looking up individual laptops, prices, and where to buy. It happened to be Prime Day, which was a small miracle since my old laptop had been on its last legs for years.

What did the magazines say that I would want, as a writer? Well, let’s see what I can remember. A large-enough screen, presumably for seeing layout and whole pages at once. Something lightweight and slim, for travel. A fairly long battery life, also for travel. A comfortable keyboard for all that incessant tapping. Access to programs that writers use most, which as far as I can tell is the Microsoft suite. What writers don’t need: fancy graphics, a high-end camera (though they need a decent one for Zoom calls), or super-storage (because we’re not using it for gaming or lots of movies, but for fairly simple document files). The articles, by the way, did recommend some Chromebooks, but I still avoided them and landed on a selection that was moderately priced (plus on sale), on the old-fashioned side of what I was seeing, and would work seamlessly with the programs I was used to using on a daily basis: Word, Excel, Notes, a browser, etc. So I landed on a Surface, the specific one that was recommended in one of the articles, which is a Surface Laptop 2. (The 3 is the newest one available.) I was pretty nervous forking out the cash (it normally comes in at $1000, but recall that it was Prime Day. Still). I had never spent that much on a laptop but everyone—me included—was sick of my debilitating tech.

Shipping said it would take nearly a week and I whined and freaked out and then settled in to a long weekend with no home school planning or story submitting. Then it arrived in two days and I panicked again, like I don’t have time to set up a computer! But somehow, after the sun set, I sat down on the family room couch with a book and flipped on a Halloween baking show in the background (because I was so used to making sure I had some entertainment at my fingertips when I did anything on my laptop, there was always that much waiting) and opened the fancy, new box. I would say it was love at first sight, but honestly, looking at the slim, silver thing with it’s sorta-carpeted keyboard area, I was unsure. Then I plugged it in, and it had this weird, new, magnetic connecter that was sure to fall out at the least provocation, and I was downright homesick. Still, I turned it on. The screen immediately popped on and a voice spoke to me in reassuring tones about walking me through the set up. The computer asked me a series of quick questions, got to know my face, and then logged me into my Microsoft account which automatically inserted my old, familiar backgrounds and some of the apps and all my freaking files! Alright, Laptoppy (I have yet to name her,) you can be my assistant until I can afford a human one.

Like daylight dawning, I am beginning to see the upsides to this tech, again. It has been a couple weeks, and I am very slowly changing my old habits. When I want something off my laptop, I am learning not to sigh and carve out a half-hour, but to just pop the darn thing on, touch the screen on the app and file I want (!!!), and watch it do what I want when I want it done. I can pull up my recipe files, my work files, my school files, in a matter of seconds. Holy Toledo, folks. And the fact that the tech is what held on to all those precious files for me while I wallowed in self-pity and irritation? That counts for something, too. (I also really like the combination of touch screen–including stylus capabilities!–and keyboard.) I am happy. I am in harmony with my biggest of writing tools, thanks to those smart people at the tech magazines, an empathetic computer repairman, a sleepy and believing husband, the Cloud, and Laptoppy.

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